Meet the Japanese company that wants to be the Intel of 3D printing


ijet_logoSee the original story in Japanese.

The 3D printing business is pretty hot in Japan right now. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve heard lots of news in this space. Many co-working spaces providing 3D printing facilities were launched around the country, and Japanese movie rental service DMM recently launched an online 3D printing order service in partnership with local companies Nomad and TeamLab.

As the market is still in the early stages, we still don’t know who will be the main players in this space. But recently I had have an opportunity to visit a company that has a very strong presence in the Japanese 3D printing industry. They are iJet corporation, based out of Yokohama. The company was founded back in May of 2009. And despite the fact that have yet to really make any marketing efforts, hundreds of notable Japanese companies are now included on its list of customers.

I had a chance to hear from the company’s founder and president Masaru Kumehara about how the company plans to change the Japanese market.

A small company with big potential

If you haven’t yet heard of iJet, it is probably because they are cultivating marketing channels in partnership with retailing companies rather than actually marketing themselves. For example, 3D printing studios such as Aoyama 3D Salon, Omote 3D Shashin Kan, and Recs 3D in Hong Kong do not have their own 3D printing facility on site. But rather they outsource the printing process to iJet. Tokyo Otaku Mode is also preparing to launch an e-commerce channel pretty soon, where they will sell character figures manufactured by the company. Kumehara adds:

Have you ever watched Intel’s TV commercial? They use the tagline “Intel Inside”. That’s what we’re aiming at. Many makers produce personal computers, and they typically have Intel-made chips under the hood. They don’t brandish the name [overtly] but everyone knows that PC makers cannot produce computers without the chips. We want to be somewhat like Intel in the 3D printing business.

iJet’s president Masaru Kumehara

In order to provide the entire 3D printing process as a service, studios must have three things: a 3D scanner, software for processing scanned data, and a 3D printer. But you will need even more than that. In contrast to 2D printing, you will be required to process scanned data to make it fit a 3D printing output, and you’ll also need some finishing touches afterwards. These processes cannot be automated, but rather it is totally artisanal. At the company, professionals called ‘modelers’ (who typically worked as clay-model sculptors or illustrators) are taking care of this difficult production process.

When I visited the company’s factory, they seemed busy finishing many client orders. The scene looked something like a team of animators working on a film, bringing very realistic sculptures into the world [1].

Will traditional print shops shift to 3D printing?

zprinteriJet can receive orders for all 3D printing tasks: scanning, data processing, printing and finishing. They also support the installation and operation of 3D scanners for their partner studios. For customers, when you order 3D printing at a studio, your original sculpture will be scanned at their storefronts, and that scanned 3D data will be transmitted to iJet, who takes care of the data processing, printing, finishing, and even delivery.

For 3D printing manufacturers, if you buy a printing device from major makers in the US (such as 3D systems or Strata) it will cost around 15 million yen ($150,000). But in order to make your business profitable after paying for the printer, you will need to receive many printing orders from customers. So Kumehara has a plan to partner with print shop chains in order to better meet consumer needs.

Print shop chains have been differentiating their businesses by providing in-shop photo-processing machines to serve customers better. But of course, with the rise of digital cameras and more advanced consumer printers, they’ve been forced to completely shift their business model. At these shops, 3D printing services may be provided as an additional service, making it more accessible to the every day consumers.

New opportunities in the entertainment industry

3dprinting-portfoliosThe rise of 3D printing is causing a drastic change in the Japanese manufacturing industry. In conventional manufacturing, mold making typically requires several months and cost a lot. But in some cases, iJet can deliver a 3D printed sculpture in as little as a few weeks after receiving an order.

If you create a human figure modeled from a real man, you can add texture so that it looks just like him. Because of its realistic detail and the short delivery time, the company been receiving non-stop orders from the music and animation industries for 3D printed figures. For the entertainment business, you don’t even need to order a large quantity, so customers can easily create and sell something by starting on a limited testing basis. And then based on the the market response, you can shift to mass-production.

The video below is a TV commercial from a Japanese plastic surgery clinic. At the end, you can see many performers wear masks. These were all made by iJet.

Can 3D printing be one of Japan’s core businesses

3dprinting-portfolios2As some of our readers may know, the Japan Expo exhibition took place in Paris last week. We’re told that it was a big success, even better than previous events. But it’s a reminder that content development is one of Japan’s strong points. As I watched the folks at the iJet factory finishing their 3D sculptures, it reminded me that this will be another sort of animation industry for the country.

Prior to founding this company, Kumehara ran a digital printing company in Yokohama. But the 2011 earthquake severely impacted his business, eventually leading him to shift to 3D printing. As the time progresses, more players will jump into this space and gradually an ecosystem will form. .

iJet looks poised to lead the 3D printing business in Japan. It will be interesting to see how if their meteoric growth can continue.

The company secured funding from investors back in February, but no details about the amount have been disclosed yet.

  1. For me this was a very impressive moment, and I wish I could share pictures or videos. But since most of the projects were related to popular characters or celebrities, it could result in possible rights issues if I do so.  ↩