Aug 15, 2016 | By Benedict

South Korea is looking to increase its share of the global 3D printing market. The country’s domestic additive manufacturing industry was worth 82 billion won ($75 million) in 2015, and is expected to rise to more than 116 billion won ($100 million) this year.

As Asia’s fourth-largest economy, South Korea can boast of some hugely successful companies which function as both domestic providers and global exporters. Its automotive sector, for example, contains Kia Motors and Hyundai, both household names around the world, while tech giant Samsung is headquartered in the “Samsung Town” area of Seoul, the Korean capital. But despite its dominance in some industries, South Korea is still seen as something of a hanger-on in the global additive manufacturing industry, with a lack of human resources and investment seemingly holding back domestic 3D printing companies.

According to the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information, the country’s additive manufacturing industry was worth 59 billion won ($54 million) in 2014, 82 billion won ($75 million) in 2015, and is expected to rise to more than 116 billion won ($100 million) this year. To put that into perspective, the Wohlers Report 2016 valued the global additive manufacturing industry at $5.165 billion in 2015, putting South Korea’s share at around 1.45%. Most of that figure is populated by small and medium-size companies rather than conglomerates like Samsung, with 72% of 3D printing-related companies in South Korea posting annual sales of less than 5 billion won ($4.5 million) and three-quarters of the firms having 50 employees on average.

Some experts in South Korea believe that the country’s relatively small additive manufacturing footprint comes from a lack of investment in software, with domestic 3D printer manufacturers producing products of a respectable calibre. “Currently, Korea is in the initial stage as it joined the 3D printing market late,” said Kunkuk University’s technology management professor Lim Chai-sung, chair of the Korea Industry 4.0 Association. “The two core factors of additive manufacturing are software and materials. Making printers is simple but developing software requires astronomical investment and efforts.”

Most agree that investment and growth is required if the Korean additive manufacturing industry is to cultivate real expertise in the market, but there are areas in which the country is currently making good use of 3D printing technology. The medical sector, for example, has already adopted certain additive manufacturing practices in order to advance surgical techniques, with 3D printed surgical guides and even 3D printed implants helping doctors to provide more efficient and patient-specific care.

The South Korean government has helped this growth in the medical sector by expressing confidence in the additive manufacturing industry and its products. With medical professionals keen to adopt 3D printing technologies as soon as they become available, the state has been exploring fast-track approval options for 3D printed medical devices. In May, officials from the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced that it was looking to amend existing regulations in order to allow fast-track approval of such instruments to enable them to be used in life-or-death situations. “It would greatly help patients who have no other alternative means of treatment because of their physiological or pathological characteristics,” said Lee Sung-hui, a ministry official involved in the process.

Governmental support for the 3D printing industry, which has also been expressed through additive manufacturing tax exemptions, has culminated in a sharp increase in AM-assisted surgical procedures in recent years—procedures which demonstrate a level of expertise beyond the country’s perceived entry-level status in the global 3D printing industry. Earlier this summer, a man was successfully implanted with Korea’s first 3D printed heel bone in a procedure which took place at the National Cancer Center. Korea was also the first country in the world to approve 3D printed cranial skull implants for medical use, and was responsible for a 3D printer which can print objects thinner than blood cells. That machine, developed by scientists from the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, uses electrohydrodynamic inkjet 3D printing to print on delicate materials such as textiles, fibers, and potentially human skin.

South Korea's first 3D printed heel bone

Such cases demonstrate progress in the area of medical 3D printing, but some will raise eyebrows over the methods used by the South Korean government to get these technologies from concept to the operating room. While investments have been made and grants given, the easing of regulations could be seen as a riskier means of advancing the industry. Fast-track approval of 3D printed medical devices could certainly enable potentially life-saving operations, but it could also result in the use of low-quality or inadequately tested devices that would not hold up to scrutiny in other countries. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken a different route, drawing up a draft guidance for 3D printed medical devices in May and encouraging those in the know to contribute their expertise to the would-be regulations. As of last month, however, the draft guidance had received little attention, with just 3 public comments added to the page. Experts have cautioned that the lack of input given to the guidance could result in safe and usable medical devices being denied approval for medical use in the States—the opposite problem to that being faced in South Korea.

Outside of the medical sector, South Korea has taken steps to advance 3D printing in other areas such as the automotive and shipbuilding industries. Earlier this year, the country invested in a five-year, $20 million research project for 3D printed ship development in Ulsan, a former fishing port. In 2014, the Korea 3D Printing Association, whose members include KT, Naver, SK Telecom, Stratasys, and 3D Systems, as well as numerous small and medium-size businesses, was established to serve as an outpost for the additive manufacturing industry. The organization hopes to train 10 million industry specialists and increase its share of the global market to 15% by 2020. Some, however, have expressed skepticism over its operations: “Lack of human resources and the government’s reassurances are the main issues for now,” Lim said. “The government should firstly define what the problem is and come up with solutions.”

Home page of the Korea 3D Printing Association

South Korea is currently home to a handful of 3D printer manufacturers, including InssTek, Carima, and ROKIT. Established in 2001, InssTek was the country's first metal additive manufacturing specialist, and holds patents in the U.S., China, and Japan. InssTek's metal 3D printers have recently become available on the European market. Carima, a plasic-oriented 3D printer manufacturer, has been in the business for 15 years, and has produced 3D printers capable of printing at speeds of 60 cm/h thanks to the company's proprietary C-CAT (Carima-Continuous Additive 3D Printing Technology) system, as well as advanced DLP 3D printers. ROKIT is one of the foremost 3D printer manufacturers in South Korea. One of the fastest growers in the South Korean market, they have a wide range of consumer and professional machines in their catalogue already. And now they have also a foothold in the biomedical industry after developing its Edison Invivo 3D bioprinter.

Wo Jong-hyun, a business professor at Chung-Ang University, has said that the government will now have to play its cards right during what would prove to be a crucial moment in the global additive manufacturing industry: “The government should not only make investment under specific plans but also provide various packages of subsidies and tax cut to encourage the industry to keep digging in the field no matter how much outcome they achieve at first,” said the professor. “Now is the very crucial moment that could change the industry supremacy from Asia to the West. Additive manufacturing is a matter of survival for companies.”

 

 

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