According to the Wohlers Report 2015, 27% of all industrial AM systems are installed in the Asia/Pacific region, with the majority being in Japan and China . Within the Asia/Pacific region, it is estimated that Japan accounts for 34.5% of systems and China 33.9%. After President Barak Obama’s State of the Union address in February 2013 many people, both in Japan and internationally, started paying much more attention to Additive Manufacturing technology. Since then sales of AM systems in Japan have increased dramatically. Industrial companies and academia are not only interested in plastics processing, but also in metal. A large number of the plastic AM systems in Japan are supplied by 3D Systems, Stratasys, and so on.
With regards to metal AM systems, it is estimated that these were sold in Japan at a rate of around five per year up to 2012, but this quickly increased and fourteen systems were installed in 2013, twelve of which were Selective Laser Melting (SLM) systems and two Electron Beam Melting (EBM) systems. Of these, the major suppliers were EOS, ARCAM, Concept Laser and Matsuura Machinery Co. Metal AM systems manufactured by SLM Solutions and 3D Systems were newly installed in 2014.
The Japanese market is therefore seeing a definite upward trend. The systems currently installed are primarily being used for prototype manufacturing during the commissioning of trial products for the aerospace, automotive and medical fields.
The history of Additive Manufacturing in Japan
In the early stages of the development of Rapid Prototyping, a significant number of Japanese companies pursued the technologies that are today central to the current growth in Additive Manufacturing. As far back as 1981 Kodama, the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute, published an account of a functional photopolymer rapid prototyping system . The companies CMET and D-MEC were founded in 1988, with CMET offering vat photo-polymerisation systems since 1992. By 2013 the company had sold a total of 340 systems . Another company, Aspect, founded in 1996, developed a powder bed fusion system for plastics. More recently, Keyence has commenced the sale of a system using a material jetting process and Roland has started selling a system using a vat photopolymerisation process.
There is also a strong history of innovation in Japan in relation to metal Additive Manufacturing technology. Matsuura, a machine tool company, developed a hybrid metal AM system combining laser sintering and milling functions together with Matsushita Electric Works (now Panasonic Co.) in 2003. A similar type of hybrid metal Additive Manufacturing system was released by Sodick Co. Ltd. in 2014. These machines are Powder Bed Fusion (PBF) systems with fibre lasers.
Kinki University, Hiroshima, developed a PBF type test bench in collaboration with ASPECT Inc. under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) project in 2006-2007. Aspect Inc. went on to develop a PBF type test bench with vacuum chamber together with the National Institute of Advanced Science and Technology (AIST) under the NEDO (New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization) project in 2010.
Machinery companies have also developed hybrid AM machines. DMG MORI Co. Ltd. developed a hybrid AM machine combining additive and subtractive manufacturing in 2013, and Yamazaki Mazak Co. developed a hybrid multi-tasking machine with laser cladding and machining in 2014. Mutoh developed a metal AM system using the arc-welding process in 2014.
It is the case, however, that Japan currently lags behind Europe and the US in the wider adoption of this technology. To address this, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry established a Study Group on New “Monodzukuri” (manufacturing) in October 2013, chaired by Prof. Shintaku of the University of Tokyo. The study group has since held several meetings to study the added-value that can be derived from Additive Manufacturing technology and the future directions of Monodzukuri, with the conclusions published as a report . The Study Group identified the following issues as a priority;
- Developing equipment, materials and software
- Developing the necessary environment
- Fostering human knowledge and skills
- Seeking optimum approaches to creating enterprises.
In light of the above, METI invested around $36.5 million in 2014 to establish a new research association, the Technology Research Association for Future Additive Manufacturing (TRAFAM). The association’s mission is twofold; to develop metal AM system technology and to develop binder jetting equipment for the rapid production of sand moulds . The President of TRAFAM is Mr. Atsushi Maekawa, Vice-President of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The project leader for the metal AM systems aspect of TRAFAM is Prof. Kyogoku, Kinki Univesity, and the project leader of binder jetting of sand moulds is Dr. Okane, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST).
In addition, NEDO launched the “Innovative Design and Production Technology Project” under the Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion (SIP) program . This project has 24 topics on innovative design and production technologies, including AM technology.
Developments in metal AM production equipment
Japanese AM system manufacturers and their main systems are detailed in Table 1. With regard to commercial Powder Bed Fusion type systems with fibre lasers, Matsuura Machinery Co. has been a leading supplier in Japan since 2003. The similar type of hybrid metal AM system by Sodick Co. Ltd. was released in 2014.
Matsuura, primarily a machine tool maker, developed its hybrid metal AM system with laser sintering and milling with Matsushita Electric Works (now Panasonic Co.) in 2003, and it released a new type of hybrid AM system in 2011, as shown in Fig. 3 . This machine is a hybrid Powder Bed Fusion type system that consists of Matsuura’s time-proven machining centre combined with a metal laser sintering function. Tooling is manufactured very efficiently by using laser sintering and high-speed finish machining. The capabilities of this process bring not only a reduction in tool manufacturing time but also quality improvements in the moulds thanks to the flexible placement of cooling channels in the mould dies.
Sodick Co., Ltd., an EDM (Electrical Discharge Machining) machine maker, produces equipment that is mainly used for the production of dies and moulds, as well as other applications which cannot be produced by standard machining methods . The company has developed a laser based metal AM system that integrates finishing by high speed milling using a rotating tool (Fig. 5).
Meanwhile, with regards to Laser Metal Deposition (LMD) equipment, DMG MORI Co., Ltd. launched a hybrid AM machine combined additive and subtractive manufacturing in 2013. This system combines Laser Metal Deposition with 5-axis milling . Mutoh developed a metal AM system using arc-welding process in 2014.
Yamazaki Mazak Co., a leading machine tool company, launched a hybrid type AM system combined with laser cladding and 5-axis milling in 2014 (Fig. 6) . These machines are used for repairing and small lot production of very difficult-to-cut materials such as those used in the aerospace, energy and medical industries.
Industrial applications for metal AM technology in Japan
Mould and die making
As mentioned above, the sales of metal AM systems in Japan have increased rapidly since 2013. Mould and die makers have installed hybrid Powder Bed Fusion machines to improve the performance of moulds by the effective arrangement of water cooling pipes and formation of deep rib as show in Fig. 7. These high performance moulds bring a significant reduction in moulding time along with quality improvements in finished products. According to an article published in Nikkei in June 2013, Panasonic planed to facilitate the mass production of home appliances using metal AM technology. It was stated that the use of metal AM technology for tooling would reduce production costs by 30% and significantly shorten manufacturing lead-time.
OPM Laboratory Co., Ltd., a die design and milling-combined laser metal sintering process service bureau, was awarded a contract for research and application development using a hybrid laser PBF type machine .
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to launch a new large-scale test rocket in 2020. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) therefore announced that it is considering using metal 3D printing to manufacture rocket parts as JAXA’s partner .
Koiwai Co., Ltd., a specialist producer of high precision castings for automotive and marine engine applications, is reported to be using not only sand Additive Manufacturing machines but also metal Additive Manufacturing machines . One of the metal AM machines is an EBM machine for titanium alloys, whilst the others are SLM machines for aluminium alloys and others.
Metal Technology Co. Ltd. (Kinzokugiken)  is a company that provides advanced metal processing technology, such as heat treatment, HIP, sintering, etc. It has introduced EBM and SLM machines for aerospace and automotive trial parts, as shown Fig. 8
In the medical field, Teijin Nakashima Medical Co. Ltd. has developed and manufactured medical devices, such as artificial joints, and applied an EBM machine to produce free-form implants and porous components as shown in Fig. 9 .
Supply and development of metal powders
The metal powder supply chain for Additive Manufacturing in Japan primarily depends on the AM machine makers, however metal AM powder specialists such as LPW Technology are also active. The sole agent of LPW is Aichi Sangyo Co. Ltd. Other suppliers include Sandvik Materials Technology and a small selection of Japanese powder makers.
TRAFAM is developing powder production technologies and AM powders in cooperation with Daido Steel Co. Ltd., Sanyo Special Steel Co. Ltd., Fukuda Metal Foil & Powder Co. Ltd. and Toyo Aluminum K. K.. In the TRAFAM project, Daido Steel is developing new powder production technologies for heat-resistant alloys. Sanyo Steel is developing new powder sieving technology to control powder characteristics and Fukuda Metal & Foil is developing new powder surface coating technology to improve flowability, oxidation-resistance, etc. Toyo Aluminum is developing new aluminium alloy powder for AM technology.
The challenge of integrating Additive Manufacturing
According to the report of the Study Group on New Monodzukuri , Additive Manufacturing technology offers two challenges for Japan’s manufacturing sector. The first is to understand the potential of Additive Manufacturing to integrate in the manufacturing of complex precision systems, such as vehicles, aircraft, and medical equipment, which require close collaboration between people in design departments and manufacturing sites, as an important element to succeed in creating new products.
The second is to broaden Japan’s manufacturing industry base and enable small independent manufacturers, or new entities that do not have large-scale investment or facilities, to bring new products to market. This could be in the information technology area or the home appliance market, as well as other markets. Additive Manufacturing offers a route to bring these ideas into real objects, leading to the development of an appropriately sized market which places emphasis on advancing Monodzukuri via a network open to the public. Such a network can be developed by promoting business collaboration among individuals, entrepreneurs, professionals and other entities; the Study Group believes that it is important to tackle these issues, focusing on four steps. Firstly, developing technologies in which equipment, materials and software are all integrated; next, developing environments in order to expedite Monodzukuri using an open network; thirdly, fostering human resources who are familiar with processing three-dimensional data; and finally, seeking ideal approaches to creating enterprises that are able to flexibly address changes in sources of added value.
On the basis of this offering, METI established TRAFAM to develop metal AM system technology and a binder jetting system for the rapid production of sand moulds. As previously stated, NEDO also launched its “Innovative Design and Production Technology Project” under the Cross-Ministerial SIP Program. NEDO is pursuing the establishment of a new manufacturing style by developing innovative technologies in 24 technology areas related to design, production and manufacturing technologies to encourage regional innovation, create new markets that can achieve global prominence and reinforce the competitiveness of the Japanese manufacturing industry.
Important Japanese materials societies have also moved to support the development of metal Additive Manufacturing in Japan. The Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers (JSME) launched its “Technical Section on Next Generation 3D Printing” in 2013, headed by Prof. Hideki Kyogoku, Kinki University, and the Japan Society of Powder and Powder Metallurgy launched its technical division on Additive Manufacturing technology in 2014.
The role of TRAFAM and new technology developments
METI invested about $36.5 million in 2014 to launch the new Technology Research Association for Future Additive Manufacturing (TRAFAM). The membership of TRAFAM includes three academic institutions and 29 companies, as shown in Fig. 10. The mission of TRAFAM project is to establish a new manufacturing industry in Japan centring on metal AM systems that will give rise to the next generation of innovative products.
The goal of the TRAFAM project is the development of innovative metal AM machines that will meet the world’s highest standards as shown in Table 2. Key areas for improvement of metal AM technology include:
- Enhanced speed: approximately ten times the current speed
- Enhanced precision: approximately five times the current precision
- Upsizing: approximately three times the current build area range
- Multi-material structures: different types of metal materials can be used
- Device cost: less than 50 million yen
TRAFAM is currently developing Powder Bed Fusion and Direct Energy Deposition types of AM machines with electron or laser beams. The software for controlling AM machines and the production technology of metal powder for AM technology is also being developed to improve the performance of AM machines. The development of the next-generation of 3D printing technology project is progressing well and, at the end of 2014, two test benches and five types of prototype AM machines have been developed (Fig. 11) and examples of trial products produced (Figs. 12 and 13).
These development machines are on track to achieve the project’s goal in 2018. The optimal manufacturing conditions are currently being investigated by experiments using test benches as well as various simulations. The new powder production technology, new powder sieving technology and new powder surface coating technology have all been developed.
With regards to the development of an innovative 3D printer using a binder jetting process to produce sand moulds for casting, a prototype AM machine was developed in 2014 and examples of a trial sand mould fabricated by the machine have been produced (Fig. 14).
Additive Manufacturing technology in Japan, in particular metal AM technology, lags behind Europe and the US. However, after 2013, the industry has developed rapidly in parallel with the usage of metal AM systems. TRAFAM’s creation and the subsequent development work, in combination with the Strategic Innovation Promotion programme started by NEDO in 2014, is expected to improve the performance and growth of metal Additive Manufacturing in Japan and reinforce the competitiveness of Japan’s manufacturing industry.
Professor Kyogoku is a leading researcher in the development of both laser Additive Manufacturing technology and functional materials, such as shape-memory alloys made via Powder Metallurgy. He serves as a project leader in TRAFAM.
 Wohlers Report 2015, published by Wohlers Associates, USA, (2015). www.wohlersassociates.com
J.J., Beaman, et al., “Solid Freeform Fabrication: A New Direction in Manufacturing”, Kluwer Academic Publishers, (1997), p.13