China Needs to Embrace 3D Printing to Remain the Factory of the World

4 min read

Man reviewing papers in a 3D printing production

Chinese manufacturers believe 3D printing is necessary for the country to keep its status as the ‘factory of the world.’ Yet, few are ready to implement it into their production lines. This is according to a recent survey that Materialise conducted among Chinese manufacturing companies to gain insight into their attitudes and interest in the technology.

In the survey, over 30% believe that 3D printing will become as or more important than traditional manufacturing, yet 65% said that they never seriously considered adopting the technology.

This statistic accurately reflects what I see in the market. For the vast majority of products that China is making today, 3D printing has not yet come into play, aside from producing 3D printers themselves.

At the moment, manufacturers around the world are mostly using the technology in design and production cycles. However, this is changing. 3D printing has matured from being used for very niche applications into something that has real, far-ranging implications within manufacturing. It is going from being only used for complex or personalized parts to being used to create end-use parts because it is more convenient, economical, and environmentally friendly.

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Stefaan Motte, Materialise Vice President for Software, thinks that 3D printing has matured and has real, far-ranging implications for manufacturing in China.

Entering a new era of 3D printing

Cost, convenience, and sustainability are why companies like Stryker and GE Aviation have started to 3D print high-quality, end-use products in high volumes in strictly regulated markets. Stryker has 3D printed over 300,000 medical implants, and GE Aviation has printed over 30,000 fuel nozzles.

These two companies are among the leaders for the next era of 3D printing, and manufacturing as a whole. 3D printing is making this step towards end-use production in large quantities, but it’s still a minority in the grand scheme of the Make Industry.

The technology certainly has the potential, but it is not just 3D printing on its own — it’s the integration of 3D printing into existing manufacturing environments supporting a distributed manufacturing flow from the design all the way to the printed parts and the logistics following. Once there is high-volume production for end-use parts, I believe that factories will actually start to come into play. I think this could be as soon as two to five years down the line.

This shift has a global impact and particularly for China, as 3D printing frontrunners are setting up in-house capabilities within their walls — meaning outside of China. This is felt in the country itself: the survey shows that around 50% of Chinese companies believe the global adoption of 3D printing could challenge the country’s position as a world manufacturing leader.

Overcoming hurdles

Even though global companies are starting to use 3D printing for final products, only 11% of the Chinese manufacturers think that the technology is ready for this purpose.

In terms of 3D printing applications, I see a lot of potential for China. The country has put forth ambitious goals as part of their Made in China 2025 plan to raise their level of manufacturing competitiveness by investing in advanced technology, such as 3D printing, and preparing the future workforce. Now their main challenge is to figure out how to reach it.

The main hurdle that China will have to overcome to meet the government’s target is getting companies to understand how to work with the technology. The survey confirmed this sentiment, with 41% of respondents saying that the lack of technical expertise is an obstacle for adoption.

It is normal for it to take several years to fully integrate 3D printing into businesses. Since the technology does not yet have a ‘plug and play’ status, companies still need guidance to know how to incorporate it into manufacturing environments.

We are making strides each year to lower the barrier for 3D printing, particularly for mass-manufacturing end-use parts. With our build processors, for example, we enable a more streamlined workflow across multiple machines and technologies.

However, given that there are still adoption hurdles, my view is that Chinese companies could overcome these by working together with 3D printing leaders to gain the expertise needed to impact the market. We strongly believe in the process of co-creation to combine our knowledge of the technology with a company’s expertise in their field to make industry-changing innovations.

Even now, we are working with the city of Ulsan in South Korea to organize co-creation sessions and show local companies how 3D printing can cut costs, save time, and make products better. We are able to help them in ways specific to their industry's needs and demands, whether it’s setting up a production line capable of high output, following certification requirements, or designing products digitally.

There’s a vast amount of knowledge that’s starting to support 3D printing for manufacturing. Ultimately, China needs to embrace the opportunity. If they fail to do this, it could threaten their status as the factory of the world.

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Meet the author

Stefaan Motte

Vice President for Software, Materialise

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