3-D printing a technology of tomorrow here today

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3-D printing a technology of tomorrow here today


Korean 3-D printer company Rokit’s 3-D printer Edison makes a phone case at SK Telecom’s retail store in Changcheon-dong, northwestern Seoul.Provided by the company

“This is a photo I took with my son. Can I make a phone case with this?” a man in his 40s asked at an SK Telecom store near Sinchon Station, northwestern Seoul.

He went to the store after seeing a signboard reading “make your own phone case.”

Fifty minutes later, the man walked out of the store with a phone case with a picture of him and his son with their arms around each other.

It is even easier to make a phone case with a logo or a picture. On the same day, when a JoongAng Ilbo reporter gave a printout of the newspaper’s logo and a catchphrase, a clerk at the store made an iPhone 5 case in just 20 minutes.

The promotion was part of the company’s event titled “Making a Phone Case With a 3D Printer,” which ran for a week starting in April 11 at five of its stores.

The 3-D printer we would normally see at exhibitions has arrived in our daily lives. Large corporations have started to use the 3-D printer in marketing and manufacturing test products.

The printers have become more frequently used as designers and workshops make test products with the printers, which can cost as little as 1 million won ($960) compared to tens of millions of won in the early 2000s.

On Wednesday, the government announced its plan to nurture the 3-D printing industry. It plans to spend 2.4 billion won this year to set up printing centers.

Until a few years ago, the quality of a 3-D printout was poor, with rough surfaces and seams of plastic, but there has been great improvement since last year.

The Korean 3-D printer used by SK Telecom to print phone cases was the cheapest model of the Edison series by the Korean 3-D printer company Rokit, priced at 1.7 million won.

The surface of the phone case was smooth and there were no plastic seams.

“We’re receiving many inquiries from designers and engineers who wish to print out test products,” said a spokesperson for Rokit. “They usually look for products between 2 million won and 5 million won.”

Lee Young-hyeon, a 26-year-old designer who runs an accessories shop in Seogyo-dong, northwestern Seoul, said she purchased the U.S. company MakerBot’s 3-D printer for 3.5 million won two months ago to print out earrings and necklaces.

Lee sells two to three times more products produced by the 3-D printer and than those she makes from paper sketches.

Open Creator, a domestic 3-D printer company, opened a store and a studio at ET Land, a large electronics retail store in Yongsan District, central Seoul, early this year. The company lends and sells its own 3-D printer, the Almond.

Large corporations that have been monitoring industry trends are moving to create 3-D printer-related businesses.

SK Telecom, the nation’s No. 1 mobile carrier, plans to continue rolling out marketing promotions using the 3-D printer.

“We prepared the event printing out phone cases with the 3-D printer as a service event during the business suspension period, and the number of customers visiting the retail stores hosting the event was quadruple compared to the stores that did not have the service,” said Chung Seung-ho, marketing manager of SK Telecom, who took charge of the 3-D printer project.

KT Rental, a subsidiary of KT, said it also will get into the retail business as it sees a bright future for 3-D printers. The company plans to lease the machines to households and businesses.

In the parts and mold industry, 3-D printers are already in use. The printers perform such tasks as creating test products for industrial parts or making molds for teeth.

“When 3-D printer technology is more developed, it will not only use plastics, but also make bones and organs with molds and ceramic,” said Kang Min-chul, a physician with the 3D Printing Research Association. “As we prepare for the industry to grow rapidly, Korea also will actively support 3-D printing research.”

BY CHO HYE-KYUNG [kjy@joongang.co.kr]

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