India can be a spoke in the world's manufacturing wheel

  • Sanjoy Narayan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 28, 2014 12:57 IST

It seems straight out of a sci-fi novel but if Anjan Contractor has his way, what we will eat in the not-so-distant future could change forever. Earlier this year, Contractor, an Indian-American engineer, got a $125,000 grant to make a food synthesiser that could use 3D printing technology to make food for astronauts in space.

Contractor, who has already developed proto-type machines that use basic food ingredients in cartridges to ‘print’ chocolates and pizza, thinks 3D printers could find a place in every kitchen and enable humans to use ingredient cartridges with long shelf lives and software for recipes to print their own foods in a personalised, waste-free way without costly supply chain logistics for storing and transportation of perishables.

The idea of machine-printed cuisine replacing conventionally cooked food may seem like a pie in the sky but there is a quiet revolution on, which could change the manufacturing industry forever and it involves 3D printing. It is also a revolution that may have cues for kick-starting Narendra Modi’s ‘Make In India’ campaign, which was launched this year with much fanfare.

Since 1983, when Chuck Hall, an American entrepreneur, invented a process to make solid polymer objects by successively printing thin layers of material on top of another, 3D printing has come a very long way.

Today 3D printing is used to make components for aircraft and automobiles, medical prosthesis and also human organs. Even in India, automakers have begun using it to make entire dashboards, tail-lamp covers and other parts; Indian orthopedists and dentists are using it to get accurate models of their patients’ bone structure to better diagnose their problems; GE has set up 3D printing machines in India that will create components for jets, engines and turbines; and Indian jewellery makers such as Tanishq are adopting it because of the customisable aspect of 3D printing.

One advantage of 3D manufacturing is that it wastes less material: in 3D printing, raw material is added in layers to make the final product instead of the conventional process of carving out a product from the material, which can be wasteful. But there are other benefits. Although manufacturing costs can be low in many parts of the world such as India and China, transportation costs for inputs and final products can be high. Companies can locate 3D printing units close to the markets for their products and, thus, reduce costs of shipping to consumers and also inventories and waste.

In India, manufacturing has an 18% share in GDP and Modi’s ‘Make In India’ campaign wants that to go up to 25%. Big defence projects such as the recent one to build helicopters with Russian knowhow can help but for quicker outcomes, India will have to think differently. China is the world’s factory and is eons ahead of India, which shouldn’t harbour wild dreams of rivalling that. Instead, India should look at unconventional solutions, such as the one 3D printing offers. If China supplies the rest of the world with products that it makes under licence from the world’s biggest companies, can India not become the world’s spare parts supplier, making components that are 3D printed under licence from such companies?

One reason why Indian entrepreneurs have not taken more rapidly to 3D printing is the high cost of 3D printers. But those costs are falling sharply. Gartner, a technology research firm, predicts that “enterprise class” 3D printers, which are meant for industrial use, could cost only as much as high-end PCs by 2016.

Indian companies have already spotted opportunities in 3D printer manufacturing. Wipro has set up one by transforming its conventional hydraulics business and its early customers include Hindustan Aeronautics and a two-wheeler manufacturer, both of whom want printers to make components using the 3D route. Globally, 3D printing is already a $6-billion market and is expected to cross $8.43 billion by 2020,which is not too far ahead. It may be a good time for India to seriously think of a ‘Print In India’ campaign.

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