Sometimes it seems that companies in the west do a lot of talking about the future of manufacturing while companies in China just go ahead and do the things, any-thing, that everyone else is talking about. Shining 3D might just be one of those companies: while many spend most of their time discussing the limits of consumer 3D printing and metal 3D printing, the Hang Zhou-based company – which was founded by current CEO Li Tao as a producer of 3D scanners – has just gone ahead and developed an entire range of professional 3D printers (SLA, SLS, SLM). This adds up to its full range of 3D scanners (blue, white and structured light) and relies on the work of over 200 R&D professionals.
I was invited by Shining 3D to attend its 2016 Global Business Partner conference at the new Hang Zhou HQ, located in the South Eastern part of China, roughly between Shanghai and Hong Kong. I had never been to China and from what I understand this is kind of a rural part of the country, very hot and humid in the summer but also very green all over. That said there are huge buildings all around and everything is just extra large. So is the Shining 3D HQ. In Fact Shining 3D seems to have done pretty much what every new 3D printer manufacturer in Europe and the States would like to do (and only very few have succeeded). They have entered into an entirely new business segment and were able to grow into a successful international company, with a solid structure, a large R&D team, many different products, a 3D printing service department and a global sales network.
It all starts from 3D scanning (and software)
Shining 3D started off making 3D scanners and continues to make the largest selection of 3D scanners based on different technologies and placed at different price ranges than any other company in the world. Today this means that it offers the industrial grade OptimScan-5M (blue light) and FreeScan-X3 (laser handheld), the new professional grade EinScan-Pro (structured light), available for around $5,000, and the low-cost EinScan-S (rotational).
These are pretty much all the primary 3D scanning technologies in one place. During the factory tour we attended live demos for both the EinScan-Pro and the FreeScan X3. Both worked perfectly and were able to capture highly detailed surfaces withouth any issue and quite rapidly. In fact we were even given the possibility to use the FreeScan X3 ourselves and it proved surprisingly easy and accurate to use. Of course this is no low cost 3D scanner, however it seems safe to assume that its price is highly competitive even for overseas distribution. Then again users of the first EinScan-S witnessed that Shining3D software enabled them to use a basic low cost scanner for serious professional jobs such as scans of highly detailed entire engine blocks.
As Mr. Tao explained to me, this expertise in a software intensive segment such as 3D scanning reflected in the company’s ability to develop highly proficient software for its 3D printers (including cloud based 3D model marketplace 3DKer.com), which also gave it a significant competitive advantage compared to other companies in China. This advantage has been channeled into creating an entire ecosystem of information on 3D printing aimed at local educators and, now, ready to reach the overseas markets of Europe and North America.
A physical 3D learning experience
The walk through the Shining 3D Experience Center alone was worth coming here. Once again Shining has done what every young 3D printing company would like to do: build a demonstrative center where the best of each application is on display, through success cases and user experiences. Materialise has something like this in its Leuven HQ, so, probably do a few other big companies, but they have been working with 3D printers for a long time. The 3D learning experience begins in the lobby, when you come face to face with the entire world, in a colorful, bass-relief physical map place below a 100+” megascreen telling about the Shining 3D experience. The educational aspect is key to the company, so much so that it donated its desktop low-cost systems to hundreds of schools in the area. The strategy paid off and the schools like it so much that they soon bought more, bringing the total of Shining 3D printers installed in schools to about 12,000.
The trip begins form Shining 3D’ idea of a virtual classroom, with 3D scanners in every desk and a 3D printer farm covering one of the walls, ready to give a physical shape to the students’ creations. The next area focuses on professional experiences. It opens with Shining 3D’s hardware for dental and medical applications, with a 3D scanner and several different prostheses and implants on display. Across form that is a Regenovo 3D printer, the company that Shining 3D partners with for bioprinting. The bioprinter was working during our visit, printing an alginate structure. Mr. Tao explained that bioprinting is showing great promise as a viable business for academic research and drug testing.
Next up is the industrial applications area, with dozens of samples relating to the use of 3D printing and 3D scanning in automotive manufacturing and prototyping, aerospace. You may have heard that you can use 3D printing to for plastic prototypes of engine components and metal parts such as impellers or pipe fittings. Here you can see them actually printed. Pretty much every application in recent 3D printing case study literature has been replicated.
The final area is entirely dedicated to consumer and mass market applications, with 3D printed clothing, shoes, toys, educational products and musical instruments all on display. Anyone coming through here would get an immediate understanding of waht can be achieved with 3D printing today and in the near future. It’s a lot like a science center exploring the future only it’s all about real products with a serious commercial potential. “Students of all age groups from the surrounding area regularly come to visit our experience center, either with their schools or on with their parents, and they spend hours discovering what they can do with 3D printing,” Mr Tao said.
Getting Up to Business
The impressive demonstration center in the HQ, together with the internal 3D printing service have a very large number of high end systems: not just from Shining 3D but also from EOS, 3D Systems and EnvisionTEC. Many more Shining 3D systems are in the nearby R&D department which the company let us freely photograph and film (something we could not do even at a certified open source company such as Ultimaker). We were able to take photos of ever single detail of the machines and ask any question which is a totally open policy in sharp contrast with the policies of a country that blocks Google, Facebook and Dropbox. The entire sales and marketing staff was there to answer any question we had, although we did get the distinct impression that when the Shining 3D technicians and marketing people did not want to answer our questions they pretended not to understand it).
Shining makes a 250 x 250 x 300 cm SLM system, which is already in its second iteration. It also offers two different SLS systems which can offer the same quality level as the EOS M270 system on the premises. The biggest area is dedicated to SLA, with the largest system’s build platform measuring a whopping 650 x 600 x 600 cm and a new version of it currently being developed.
Since they have more than 60 patents, you can’t even complain that Shining 3D is not innovating and just copying what western companies are doing. It may have been the case in the beginning but they are already moving beyond that. They do, however, make it look so much simpler. Western 3D printer manufacturer sometimes feel their technology is so complex no one could replicate it. Shining 3D seems to be able to do high quality industrial SLA, SLS and SLM but, Mr Tao explained, it sure has not been easy. “Very significant investments went into our machine development. We may be a youbg company but most of our engineers and R&D professionals are industry veterans,” he said.
Shining 3D, on the other hand, makes it looks easy to develop new systems, so much so that Mr Tao took the chance to announce the arrival of a smaller metal 3D printer, idea for precious metal powders. My guess is that instead of running into a general resistance from current manufacturers pointing out all the limits of the technology, they will enjoy the support from thousands of local artists who want nothing more than experiment with the new possibilities it offers. They may replicate Western technology but the West has a lot to learn from China on the “anything factory” of the future.