By Lee Chi-dong
GOYANG, South Korea, June 23 (Yonhap) -- "We '3D print' your imagination and efforts," an ad copy reads, as a tiny nozzle slowly moves around, squeezing out a melted filament, a sort of eco-plastic.
A Pikachu doll is being made in a demonstration of how 3D printing, also dubbed "additive manufacturing (AM)," works.
"It takes two or three hours to produce a doll of this kind with this desktop 3D printer, which is priced at 31.5 million won (US$2,730)," said Yoon Dae-sik, a marketing director at Vision Technology Korea, a venture firm headquartered in Daejeon, some 160 kilometers south of Seoul.
Launched in 2013, the company is focusing on the development of desktop 3D printers, based on the "fused filament fabrication" system, for education, design testing or medical purposes.
It's among dozens of domestic and foreign companies taking part in the Inside 3D Printing Conference & Expo under way at the KINTEX exhibition center in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province.
The three-day event to end on Friday offers a snapshot of where the 3D printing industry is headed and a direct chance for local producers to meet buyers and investors.
The global AM market grew 25.9 percent on-year to $5.16 billion in 2015, according to Wohlers Associates, a U.S. consulting firm specializing in 3D printing.
South Korea's related industry is still in a nascent stage despite its ICT prowess.
Amid a lack of capital and investment, local businesses, mostly small ones, produce desktop 3D printers, of which the average selling price is $1,055 worldwide.
"It's a matter of money, but it can be a niche market here as well," said Shin Jeong-hyeon, general manager of the sales division at HyVision Systsem Inc., a KOSDAQ-listed company known for its Cubicon 3D printers. "Demands for desktop 3D printers will continue to grow, as they help save time and costs to test and optimize products."
3D printers help easily and quickly produce prototypes and are useful for creativity in education at schools and the production of customized medical devices, he pointed out.
Manufacturers here would not need to wait several days, weeks or months for a single prototype usually made in China.
An estimated 3,500 desktop 3D printers were sold in South Korea last year and the number is expected to rise to around 5,000 this year, Shin added.
The South Korean government regards 3D printing itself as a core industry for the country's future economy.
In May, it announced a plan to ease some of regulations on 3D printing.
Experts say South Korea has both challenges and opportunities.
"It's a very technology-rich nation. There are some really big brands like Samsung and LG. I am optimistic," Terry Wohlers, principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, said.
He said the government seems to "understand where this might go and how they need to support helping transition some of these new ideas into products and services here in Korea."
Wohlers advised South Korea to resist the temptation of getting caught up in the low-end desktop models.
"There is certainly an important role for them. I think the real money, though, is in manufacturing applications...bigger and more elaborate industrial machines," he said. "The real opportunity for Korea is how it can play a role in offering products and services around final-part production, versus just the machines for making models and prototype parts."
He dismissed worries that the new technology will trigger massive job cuts.
There will be far more jobs to be created than eliminated just like the computer industry, he stressed, citing the need for various relevant fields including 3D content, cloud services, part-building services and design optimization.
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