China’s Belt and 3D Printed Road: Embrace and Extend

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China has publicly advocated for increased adoption of high-tech and innovative technologies across the country. The Made in China 2025 industrial policy is just a part of a concerted effort by Chinese policymakers to take the nation from just being the world’s workshop to being its cleanroom and lab. China wishes to lead in high-volume and high-quality manufacturing. From being a country where things are assembled, it wants to be a country where they are invented and developed. So, not Designed in California and Made in China, but Designed in China and Made in China.

As discussed in the previous article, we can typically see that China is growing in technological prowess and capability stage-by-stage for different markets and technologies. To sum up these stages, we can conclude that, on the whole:

  1. Long term strategic goals are made.
  2. These are included in five-year plans
  3. Plans are localized.
  4. Clusters are activated.
  5. Research and commercialization are stimulated.
  6. Funding is brought in.
  7. Foreign expertise is sought.
  8. China’s national competence is developed.
  9. Products and companies are internationalized.
  10. And the resulting prowess is then used to rinse and repeat the process for new adjacent technology.
Of course, there have been far more informed and eloquent descriptions of China’s industrial policy. So, don’t see this as definitive, but as just an indicative model that gives us enough understanding for our purposes. Generally, we can say that this model seems close to the one that was used in solar panels, batteries, security cameras, IoT devices and more. In cars (electric and otherwise), AI, machine vision, aircraft, and machine tools, China seems to be doing the same thing.
The Chinese government has a public National Plan for the Development of Additive Manufacturing Industries Industries (2015-2016) and an ensuing Additive Manufacturing Industries Plan 2017-2020. The plans target annual growth rates of 30% and have wanted China’s share of these markets to be over $3 billion already. I saw some of China’s development up close a few years ago, when thousands of fablabs were opened throughout the country and tens of thousands of printers were sold to schools and institutes. At the ground level, it all seemed quite haphazard, but waves of successive investment have contributed to more entrepreneurial activity, research, patents, papers, and printers from Chinese firms.
Many countries worldwide are trying to stimulate 3D printing in one way or another. This can range from the technology development done by Germany through the Fraunhofers, or the defense-related technology commercialization being done on the backs of Oak Ridge and other national labs in the States. Indeed German and Swedish stimuli led to us having powder bed fusion and EBM. Generally, we can say that the Americans are commercializing new weapons manufacturing technology, while the Europeans want to make spare parts, hope and cuddles. But, what of the Chinese government? Part of its policies seem to embrace the chaotic nature of the 3D printing market and just stimulate, engender and help any and all 3D printing development by Chinese companies. No matter what the technology or application, all will be good for Team China.
We can also distinguish a notable interest in things that fly. Already in 2013, “Chinese media reports are stating that AM-created parts are being used in theJ-15, J-16, J-20, and J-31 jet fighters, the Y-20 transport, and the C919 commercial airliner.” Indeed the C919 seems to have a lot of components on board. So, we know that other than the published strategic plans and the additive manufacturing-related sections of Made in China 2025, there was previous planning and interest from the country vis a vis aerospace. The many parts put on Chinese aircraft and the interest means that there would have to have been significant investment, competence, and knowledge in 3D printing for aviation for many years before 2013.
What we don’t see in 3D printing is the technology being localized in one national champion, city or region. The tech is spread out over many different parts of the country and there, for the moment at least, does not seem to be one central winning region. We can also see that there is not one national champion. All sorts of firms are competing to do the best that they can.
We can note a huge amount of Chinese patents and research papers devoted to AM. Over 500 Chinese 3D printing patents have been filed recently and thousands of papers have been published from Chinese researchers showing that the nation is serious about research in the field. Some recent papers also show the breadth of China’s research, including articles about directed energy deposition titanium alloys for aerospace, 3D printed electrolyte films, cold metal pulse plus wire arc additive, high entropy alloys, the biocompatibility of tantalum alloys, polyamide honeycombs, and much more.

Zhao Tong, Managing Director of Arburg China (second from right), and Huan Yin, Business Development Director (fourth from right), officially opened the Arburg Prototyping Center in Shanghai in March 2021. The location now has four Freeformers for AM. Image courtesy of Arburg.

We also know that there have been several joint ventures that encouraged knowledge sharing such as the one between Voxeljet and MeiMai in 2015 or a more reseller-focused one, between Nano Dimension and Aurora. Other 3D printing-adjacent joint ventures involve companies such as Liebherr Aerospace’s ARJ121 jet-focused landing gear partnership. Some firms, such as TPM3D, have worked with EOS and Stratasys.

3D printed rudder actuator developed and manufactured by Liebherr-Aerospace

There has been a lot of government money available for Chinese startups. Investments have seemed to be behind what is happening in the states and elsewhere but we won’t know the full picture for some time yet. We know that there are companies that are much more successful than we know. Xi’an Bright Laser for example is publicly traded and doing very well. On the whole, we can see that China appears to be on the move and indeed expanding its 3D printing capabilities very comprehensively.

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