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China’s Belt and 3D Printed Road: A Nation’s Embrace of AM

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A few months ago I noticed an interesting trend. There are in effect two 3D printing markets: the Chinese and the Global. What has happened is that many Chinese firms have developed 3D printers for export. Famous companies, such as Anet and Creality, dominate their market segments and are the largest manufacturers of 3D printers. Farsoon, Xi’an Bright Laser and Tiertime export their products to the world in their market segments as well.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the globe, other businesses, such as Shenzhen Kings, are sweeping through Asian manufacturing markets and gaining share. But, even less known is the fact that China has a whole host of firms making every single type of 3D printer, from directed energy deposition systems to large format fused deposition modeling and everything in between that cater wholly to the Chinese sector. I’ve asked many friends and contacts and all repeat a similar refrain: “Chinese companies only use Chinese 3D printers” or “Chinese services only use local machines”, or “here we only use machines made here.”

This trend of China exporting but relying on indigenous 3D printing technology to advance its own manufacturing is not a coincidence. Indeed, it is by design that China is embracing its own high-tech machine tools, technologies, software, startups, and knowledge. China’s Made in China 2025 Plan is explicit and very public about making China a technology leader. In the plan, the country describes its goal of reliance on its own Industry 4.0 solutions across multiple markets. This plan builds on the earlier China Long Term Plan for Science and Technology Development, started in 2006, which aimed for the country to achieve significant leadership and self-sufficiency in sectors such as desalination, high-speed rail, displays, medicine and more.

Ridiculed and often seen as failures, China’s previous ten-year and long-term plans were often considered disastrous. Since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, however, China’s economic boom has been described as a huge success story. From being a poor nation unable to feed its own people, it has become one of the wealthiest and most productive countries on Earth. That was a long-term strategic plan that has changed the planet forevermore.

The above chart looking at GDP per capita growth since 1970 will give you some idea of the astounding economic achievements that China has had over the past decades. In 1993, GDP per capita was $377; in 1995, $610; in 2000, $959; 2010, $4,550; and, today, it is $10,262. This is a nation of over one billion people achieving this kind of breakneck growth for decades. The below chart of exports shows you just how much the country has grown economically, as well.

This is even more remarkable, given that the nation, simultaneously, as the Chinese government says, made it so that “1.25 billion Chinese (about one-fifth of the world’s total) have basically solved the problem of food and clothing with only about 7 percent of the world’s arable land.” Other indicators have changed dramatically, as well: “[B]efore 1949, more than 80 percent of Chinese adults were illiterate. Now the illiteracy rate among the young and middle aged is 6 percent. The enrollment rate of school-age children was only 20 percent before 1949. The rate jumped to 98.9 percent in 1998.” While in “1949, China, with a population of more than 500 million, had only 3,000 medical organizations with a total of 80,000 hospital beds and 500,000 medical workers, averaging 1.5 hospital beds per 10,000 people and less than one doctor per 1,000 people. By the end of 1998, the country had registered 310,000 medical institutions, with a total of 3.14 million hospital beds and 4.42 million medical workers, including 1.41 million doctors.”

The country’s success is all the more astounding if we look back to see that the Sino-Soviet split meant that the country was isolated from its communist former-brethren since the ’60s. Indeed, the nation even fought a war against Vietnam in 1979. Nixon going to China was all the more significant if you notice that almost no other leaders were doing so at the time.

In 1978 the country had 22,000 tourists and, now, more than 146,000 New Zealanders visit China each year. Growth continues, but other nations are increasingly wary of Chinese influence and demands. Worries also abound as to the country’s birthrate and continued social stability, as well as income inequality. Still, many see China as the workshop of the world. When you speak about Chinese innovation or companies, many think of the nation as one that can only copy. China is seen as a giant foundry for cheap low-quality goods. Success stories such as DJI are simply not well-known or well-understood enough for Westerners to comprehend the country’s potential.

3D printing is strategic for China and its continued development feeds into the need and goal for the nation to be self-sustaining in aerospace and other high-tech areas. Westerners would severely hinder our their own progress if they discounted China’s development in 3D printing and its wish to make all of the systems better than Westerners can. One should not underestimate China’s investments in 3D printing and use of the technology.

Just because so many startups are China-focused, one should also not write off its prowess and its market size. One should definitely not—due to sheer racism, preconceived ideas, or engrained tropes— imagine the Chinese to be “uncreative” or incapable of delivering on manufacturing quality. One does China and themselves a disservice if they continue to have such ignorant thoughts.

Westerners have to come to terms with a rising China in high tech, which will mean an increasing dominance of the country’s 3D printers across many sectors in the Western market, as well. In this series, we will look across several technologies from commercial space flight to aviation and study the Chinese market more clearly. Hopefully, this will give us a clearer picture of China’s increasing role in 3D printing and beyond.

Top image Rolf Dietrich Brecher

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