Chinese manufacturing and 3D printing : what is about to happen ?

 

It seemed that China had a slow start in 3D printing, but the country is quicly reducing its gap and could very well actually take a lead.

 

The basic proof of this is the number of Chinese 3D printers available on the market : there is currently seven different models, from the cheapest simplest one to top level ones, many of these manufacturers’ models having very good ratings in the press reviews.

 

Some proeminent people in China have skeptical views about 3D printing, for example, Terry Gou, chairman of Foxcom has stated that he belives that 3D printing is a gimmick, and that ih he is prowen wrong, he will write his family name backwards to show the extent of the failure in his prediction.

 

However, other people are taking it very seriously, at the highest level. The Chinese astronauts had 3D seats during their last space flight, every seat being custom made to fit a member of the crew.

 

Still it is unlikely that 3D printing will overcome factory mass production in a near future. Robots on assembly lines are faster and faster, more and more precise, and the slow 3D printers are far from being able to compete with a skilled human. There is no threat for countries that have become the world manufacturing powerhouse.

 

Prototypes and makers

Some industries will more and more require 3D printing, in fields where there is a need for sophisticated pieces and custom made prototypes. In Beihang University (Beijing University of Aeronotics), has a 12 meters large 3D printer, and what is being experimented there might be the future. It is used to design the future commercial pkanes designed in China that will compete with Airbus and Boeing. The challenge is to have the 3D printers cast metals and do it without any flaw. The research is going fast. This kind of techniques is being used in the auto industry to design prototypes within a few weeks that would otherwise take months.

 

The trend is clear and a Chinese equivalent of the « Maker Movement » that was born in the USA is emerging. People want to design their own goods, engineers have the 3D printers on their desks, small workshops with 20 3D printers working in line can be seen in Beiing.

 

This is in tune with the rising trend of Chinese people to have things custom made.

 2014 the decisive year

And 2014 is going to be a decisive year. Some key patents in 3D printing are about to expire and there will be a signficative drops in the price of some models. The most important patent about to become public is the laser sintering method which is used on some industrial tp of the notch 3D printers. This means these will become affordable to creaive people at home when they were exclusive for professionnal designers.

 

And the truth is that the demand for such models was so importnt that the suppliers could not fulfill the orders, limiting professionnal 3D printing to a happy few. This is about to change.

 The future of Chinese manufacturing ?

Another way 3D printing could impact China is some manufacturing processes leaving China to go back in Europe or the USA. Still , this won’t be about mass manufacturing but will be important regarding niche markets.

 

This could be the case, but China is catching up and will definitely be a major actor in the world of 3d printind, citizens of cities like Beijing and Shanghai are already very much into it.

 

 

Sources :

 

The Economist

 

Quartz

 

Bloomberg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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