Decentralizing Manufacturing: 3D Printing Brings Education, Job Opportunities Locally

November 16, 2016 | ProgressTH 3D printing has gone from a novelty to a commonplace tool both at makerspaces and for individuals around the world. Here in Thailand as well as around the world, entire companies now exist locally to both design and build 3D printers and to supply spare parts and the thermoplastic filament (usually PLA or ABS plastics) used to print 3D objects layer by layer.

A simple 3D printing and electronics prototyping setup on a single tabletop. 
Those using 3D printing range from educational institutions, to industrial designers, engineers, architects, and even manufacturers of hardware that requires short run or highly customizable production.

While the initial investment can be relatively high for an individual, collectives such as makerspaces can buy one or more 3D printers and make income from activities ranging from educational workshops, hardware prototyping for local entrepreneurs, and fulfilling short-run orders for local businesses.  

ProgressTH exists as a private fabrication lab, but still processes requests for 3D printing services. We work with at least two companies that are involved in highly customized and short run production who could otherwise not afford to approach a traditional factory for the designing and fabrication services they require.

Also, as part of our collaboration with Bangkok-based children's hospital, Queen Sirikit National Institute of Child Health (QSNICH), we regularly perform prototyping and short-run production services to create a wide range of highly customized solutions for nurses, doctors, and technicians.

Laser cutting at FabCafe Bangkok. 

While we do not make much income doing this because it is not our primary focus, those that do focus solely on 3D printing services can make a decent living here, basically running a "desktop factory."

Additionally, makerspaces like FabCafe Bangkok offer both 3D printing and laser cutting services, along with many unique workshops that teach people how to innovate, design, and physically fabricate their ideas into tangible products.

Skills & Equipment Required

In order to start your own 3D printing service, you obviously need a 3D printer. But more than that, you need to be able to actually 3D design. While there is a learning curve, it is not as steep as some might think, nor does it require years of specialized training or an expensive engineering degree.

Plastic 3D printing filament.
In reality, 3D designing suites like SketchUp are not only free, but have been used for so long, by so many people, speaking virtually every major language on Earth, that you can readily find a wide range of videos online walking you through everything from the very basics of 3D design, to advanced modelings skills, to the entire process of going from 3D design to 3D printed object.

The hardware required is obviously a 3D printer and plastic filament. Just a few years ago, you could count on both hands the number of 3D printers available to purchase. Today, the choices are almost overwhelming.

We personally stick with opensource designs that rely on tried and true architectures for which many companies and suppliers provide spare parts for. Our printer, a Thai-made ExtraBot, is a clone of Ultimaker's Original+. It shares many characteristics, parts, and electronic components with many RepRap builds.

When our heating element's wire was malfunctioning, we were easily able to find a local supplier who shipped 2 new ones to us for around 70 THB (2 USD). Because the heating element and the assembly it is a part of is also opensource, we found many videos online that showed how to assemble and disassemble it, allowing us to repair it ourselves.

Owning and maintaining a 3D printer is not like owning a paper printer. The "hotend" of a 3D printer can reach temperatures of between 180-250+ degrees Celsius. Caution and commonsense is required, as is patience and proper safety when performing repairs. But if you invest the time required to properly learn these skills, you will be confidently 3D printing in no time.

Many local makerspaces, no matter where you live, either offer regular 3D printing and 3D design workshops, or likely have members who would be willing to answer at least your preliminary questions to help you get started. If this interests you in any way at all, do an online search to find the makerspace nearest you, and get started now!

The Future 

In addition to local makerspaces here in Bangkok, we also have Gravitech, an electronics company that designs, prototypes, and manufacturers hardware for the maker, engineering, and prototyping community here. Until recently, their factory was in the US, and other products they offered were imported from around the world, including from the US, Europe, and China.

However, they now have their own microfactory in northern Bangkok at a facility called RICH. Because of the dropping costs and increasing capabilities of manufacturing, this localization of manufacturing is now possible. While Gravitech is an experienced company, and such microfactories are still out of the reach of most makerspaces, the march of technology almost inevitably ensures that it won't be for long.

Gravitech's Bangkok-based microfactory can produce hundreds of electronic boards a day. Designing, prototyping, manufacturing, testing, and delivery can be done in just days. 
Learning the skills required for 3D design, electronics, and computer-controlled fabrication will likely be as essential tomorrow as computer literacy is today. It's probably not a bad idea to at least look into this increasingly important field of technology and design, and see what people are most likely already doing with it in or near your local community today.

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