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Ulsan City – Korea’s Newest 3D Printing Center

If you are involved in additive manufacturing you are probably aware of the list of key cities where industrial 3D printing/AM is taking hold over the past few years.  And if this is a topic of interest to you, there is another city that should be added to that list.  On the southeast coast of the Korean peninsula, just north of the hectic shipping port of Busan, is the city of Ulsan, South Korea.  You may have never heard of this place before, but it is highly likely you will in the near future.  Why?  Because the Ulsan City is planning on turning itself into the 3D printing capital of Korea.

Ulsan is a large city that covers an area of about 1,060 square kilometers and boasts a population of 1.1 million people, many of whom are employed in the area’s massive industrial infrastructure.  The city boasts the largest domestic industrial manufacturing cluster in Korea, which includes automobile, shipbuilding, and petrochemicals as its mainstays.  But due to changes in global conditions Ulsan, like many manufacturing areas throughout the country, has been dealing with slowing economic demand.

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Korean leaders, never ones to sit idly by, began exploring options to reinvigorate and restore the nation’s economic base.  Officials began looking for new industrial opportunities, as well as ways to improve existing industries, and it wasn’t long before they began to seriously look at 3D printing/Additive Manufacturing (AM) as a means of increasing efficiency and competitiveness.  Plans were drawn up, budgets were set aside, and the City of Ulsan was selected to be the center.

To find out what some of those ideas were, and how they were being implemented, we went to Ulsan to look around for ourselves and speak to some of the people key to these new plans. We sat down with Seo YoungJoon, Director of the Creative Economy Division for the City of Ulsan, to discuss what his city is doing to attract, encourage, and develop 3D printing in South Korea.

“One of my jobs here now is to boost up the economy in Ulsan.  Some conventional ways were not really working out, so when I attended a 3D printing seminar, I remember thinking, ‘if we can combine this 3D printing into the existing industries such as shipbuilding, automobile and petrochemical, we can save a lot of time and expense.’” Mr. Seo said, “I later learned of GE’s Alabama factory where they are now manufacturing fuel injection pumps for their jet engines.  That seems a good example of using 3D printing in the industrial sector.  By building on this technology, we can see some future possibilities for manufacturing larger parts, even for ships.  Compared to using techniques like casting, it will be more competitive.”

Pointing out that the current abilities of even the biggest industrial printers has some serious size limitations, he said that they were recently looking at the Sciaky’s EBAM machines. “So far Korea does not have any technology like the EBAM for manufacturing large engines or parts so the government began a project, and starting next year, we plan to make such a 3D printer.  Currently we have a budget of 12 billion Kwn (approximately 10 million USD) set aside for it.”

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In addition to doing their own innovation, Mr. Seo also pointed out that his team has been very busy reaching out to other manufacturers for advice, assistance, and inspiration.  He advised that one such contact was the American company Local Motors, manufacturer of the world’s first 3D printed car.

“We first contacted them at the end of 2014, realizing that they had a plan to build microfactories overseas.  So we offered our letter of intent.  In February of 2015, their team came to Ulsan, and later that same year Ulsan’s Mayor Kim GiHyeon went to the Local Motors facility in Knoxville, Tennessee.  This is the place where the Strati 3D printed car is made, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with them.  So in the first half of 2017, we plan to construct a microfactory in Ulsan.”

He also advised that they had been in close contact with the Fraunhofer Research Group in Europe.  “We started to contact them in January of 2015 and in November they opened an Asian branch office in Ulsan at the National Institute of Science & Technology (UNIST) and together we are working on R&D.”.

Though things are just getting underway, Mr. Seo said that he doesn’t expect it to take too long before they begin to see some positive economic returns on their efforts.  “For now, Hyundai Heavy Industry plans to adopt 3D printing in their manufacturing process.  For them to achieve that they have already sent their researchers to the (United) States and they will come back next March.  The adaptation of the tech already was started last January.  That is just one example.  As such processes are accelerated, by 2020 we expect to see the entire structure of Ulsan industries reshuffled.”

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In addition to research and investment, the government is dealing with the current labor disruptions, and is preparing to deal with expected future ones.  Mr. Seo advised that Ulsan was already setting up programs and preparing to retrain older workers, as well as educate younger ones, to operate all this new equipment.  Right now at Korea Polytechnic University in Ulsan classes are being conducted for people interested in learning about this new technology, and there are plans to expand the programs dramatically.

“In Ulsan, because of the crisis in shipbuilding, 21,000 have lost their jobs so far this year, and by the end of year we expect 14,000 more to be laid off.  So in total 35,000 are to be laid off this year in the shipbuilding industry.  We were able to divert some workers to other industries and, at the Polytechnic University, we are retraining others with the new technology and helping them to find new jobs.”  Mr. Seo continued, In order for 3D printing to go forward, and not end at the hype stage we are in, it should be used practically in industry, not just for novelty applications.  We expect that we will eventually need as many as 150,000 to 200,000 people who can understand both the traditional manufacturing processes and 3D printing.”

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According to Mr. Seo, Ulsan is a good city for 3D printing.  In addition to all of its industrial and human resources, the Korea national government is supporting Ulsan for this transition.  It is being called a “3D printing Free Zone,” meaning that Ulsan is the only city in Korea to offer low interest rate for business loans to companies that either start or run a 3D printing-related firm.  And for medical 3D printing, which requires many specialized permits and certifications, the Ulsan government is actively assisting companies to meet these requirements in an effort to help encourage the industry to grow.

For now the city of Ulsan might be just at the beginning stages of becoming an international 3D printing center, but with determination, dedication, and now firm plans and commitments, it looks like they are on their way.  We will be sure to keep a close eye on their progress.

Article by Mark Lee & David Park

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