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Cambodia’s tech revolution? 3D printer arrives on Kingdom shores

A 3D printer produces a chocolate heart. BLOOMBERG
A 3D printer produces a chocolate heart. BLOOMBERG

Cambodia’s tech revolution? 3D printer arrives on Kingdom shores

3D printers have given the US technology industry a boost. Bennett Murray meets the brothers who are introducing the idea to Cambodia.

One of the world’s most curious tech toys has arrived in the Kingdom: the 3D printer. The concept, so new that even its pioneers aren’t quite sure what to do with it, is in Phnom Penh courtesy of a pair of Cambodian-American brothers who aim to make the city a hub for the burgeoning technology.

Ki How Tran, 23 and Ki Chong, 26, founded a firm, Arc Hub, in October, intended to teach people how to use the printers after Ki Chong learned about the technology while working sales for an aerospace company in Los Angeles. After researching the possibilities, Chong decided to bring one printer to his ancestral homeland.

“It kept snowballing, so eventually I thought, let’s bring it to Cambodia and they can use it,” he said in an interview in Phnom Penh.

Their short term plan is to begin 3D printing classes next month at SmallWorld, a collaborative work place and business resource centre in Toul Kork. With the help of two recent architecture graduates, who will focus on the software aspect of 3D printing, Kiw How and Ki Chong plan to teach their students everything from the design aspect to the physical construction of the devices.

The brothers’ own first printer arrived dissembled from the US and had to be constructed by Ki How.

“I had never even seen one until I built one,” he said. Without any prior experience, it has been up to the brothers to figure out for themselves how to make the technology work.

“I want to teach students from the very beginning how to wire everything - how to set everything up, so they can say that Cambodia has built its first 3D printer,” said Ki How Tran.

A 3D printer passes the Royal Palace in a tuk-tuk. PHOTO SUPPLIED
A 3D printer passes the Royal Palace in a tuk-tuk. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The devices, which were invented in the 1980s and popularised in the early 2010s, turn digitally designed 3D graphics into tangible objects through a process of sequential layering. Although some hi-tech models can create objects out of metal and even live cells, most 3D printers use plastic.

The hope, said Ki How, is that 3D printers will one day replace physical couriers. “Ideally, every major city will have a 3D printer, so you wouldn’t really need to ship.”

The possibilities are endless, with everything from food to human organs potentially printable. US President Barack Obama gave tech engineers a morale boost when he highlighted the printers as a potential source for new hi-tech jobs last February.

A Texas man made headlines after designing a functional firearm made almost entirely with a 3D printer. There has been negative news too: the controversy of 3D printed hand guns.

For good or bad, this year saw enormous growth in varieties of printer, some of which reached their lowest yet prices at around $199.

But despite the hype, 3D printing is yet to hit its stride. It was only a matter of weeks ago that 3D systems announced a full-tone printer that could create rainbow-coloured objects.

“That’s pretty much everyone’s question: what are people going to use it for?” said Ki Chong.

In Cambodia, he suggested, 3D printers could mean mass production on a cheaper budget.

“You don’t need giant factories, land, huge investments of even a very high level of technical skill to make things using 3D printing.

Twin brothers Ki Chong and Ki How Tran
Twin brothers Ki Chong and Ki How Tran. Heng Chivoan

“It allows countries with very little resources, like Cambodia, to create things uniquely for themselves that otherwise would have been mass-produced by giant factories in China or Vietnam.”

Va Chenda, a 22-year-old graphic designer for Arc Hub, said the printing will offer an outlet for Cambodia’s creatives.

“With 3D printing, anyone can be a designer. They can design their own thing and bring it out, instead of just going to the market and buying the same thing as a million other things in the market.”

Chenda also said that the technology presents the potential for cheap manufacturing in the Kingdom that goes beyond the garment sector.

“If we compare to the startup costs of factories, and the cost of the machines for the printers, [3D printing] is cheaper. You can sell their designs online, so you can get a profit without steep costs.”

The brothers, who own two printers imported from the US, have thus far printed objects with varying degrees of success. The team managed to create a spare gear for a sewing machine that Ki How Tran estimated would have otherwise cost around $200 to replace, but a plastic sculpture of US comedian Stephen Colbert ended up looking like a deformed Abraham Lincoln due to a hardware malfunction.

Both brothers agreed, however, that the point of experimenting with 3D printing today is to get onboard with the technology before its practical uses take off in full force.

Ki Chong compared 3D printing to the early days of the Internet, or computers, adding it had the potential to “fundamentally disrupt and change how things are made, but no one knows exactly how or what is going to be made.

“If you compare 3D printing to the Internet, we are before the time of email, instant messaging, or news websites, which showed the practical applications of the Internet,” he said.

“No one back then could have predicted smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, crowd-funding, couch-surfing, and so on, which all fundamentally changed the way we do business and interact with each other.”

“I want to bring 3D printing to Cambodia so people can learn about it and use it at the same time as the rest of the world, while it is still a new technology, so Cambodia won’t be left behind, but instead be in the front, leading the way.”​

Arc Hub, a work space where 3D printing skills are taught, can be found at #17 Street 604, Touk Kork, Phnom Penh.

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