China’s 3D Printing: Not a Revolution—Yet

Engineers, inventors, and industrial futurists in China are setting sights on a new technological frontier as three-dimensional printing slowly revolutionizes manufacturing.

A Beijing University research team, for example, has been working on what industry sources say is a breakthrough technology that uses 3D printing to produce large, complicated aircraft components.

The team, led by materials science and engineering Professor Wang Huaming, in January won a national award from the State Council for technological achievement.

The recognition for Wang’s team and their work has encouraged companies in 3D printing-related businesses. Many have seen their stock prices surge to new highs in recent months.

Like a skilled sculptor, a 3D printing system can build through a materials-layering process a fully shaped and solid object, model, or component based on a designer’s computerized instructions.

Theoretically, this type of system could be used to build a plane, car, or even a human organ. Some forecasters predict 3D printers will be making home-cooked meals by 2020.

In reality, though, the systems have limited applications. Wang told Caixin that for now the technology can only supplement traditional manufacturing.

“It’s too early to say” whether it will usher in a revolution for manufacturing, said Wang.

Printing Objects

The technology for 3D printing first appeared in the United States in the 1980s when Charles Hull invented digital computer equipment that could be used to make models with synthetic resins. He called the process “stereolithography.”


Based on Hull’s work, scientists later developed techniques called Fused Deposition Modeling and Laser Sintering for wider applications. Then in 1993, MIT professors Michael Cima and Emanuel Sachs patented a practical 3D printing system.

That set off a worldwide race to commercialize 3D printing technology, leading to a variety of creative applications. As a result, the process has been used in Britain to make special footwear for soccer players and in Belgium to craft a replacement for a woman’s jaw.

Last year, according to 3D authoring solution provider 3D Systems Corp., the U.S. Air Force spent US$2.95 billion on 3D printing procedures for aircraft components and weapons systems.

Chinese engineers started exploring the potential for 3D printing in the late 1980s, after U.S. technology was introduced to China by Yan Yongnian, a mechanical engineering professor at Tsinghua University.

In an interview with Caixin, Yan said his first exposure to the technology came in 1988 when, during a visit to the United States, he heard about Hull’s research. He and a colleague later bought some equipment from Hull’s company and brought U.S. scholars in the field to China to give lectures.

China now has four major research bases for 3D printing technology, Yan said. They include Tsinghua, Xi’an Jiaotong University, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, and a Beijing-based company called Beijing Longyuan Industrial Stock Co. Moreover, each university has started a business geared toward profiting from 3D printing.

The achievement that won an award for Wang and his team is a technique called Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS) for manufacturing high-density metallic components. Their work led to the 2010 production of a wing part for the Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China’s C919 jetliner, for a 90 percent cost savings over traditional manufacturing methods.

Wang calls LENS revolutionary because it takes less time and costs less than standard modeling techniques. Moreover, this process could have an enormous and beneficial impact on business for manufacturers of heavy equipment, aircraft, and engines.

Nevertheless, Yan said, 3D printing as a commercial manufacturing procedure has yet to really take off. Researchers are still working on the technique’s stability, and hope someday it can be used for the kinds of repetitious tasks involved in mass production.

On the other hand, 3D printing is already suitable for producing military equipment such as missiles, said Cai Daosheng, a former general manager at Wuhan Binhu Mechanical & Electrical Co., which was established as a 3D printing company by Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

“We’ve had many military projects,” said Cai.

China’s 3D printing researchers are trying to catch up to counterparts in other countries, including the United States. One remaining hurdle has to do with the quality of materials used to build models and components.

China’s materials “for 3D printing are much weaker,” said Feng Tao, manager of Beijing Henglong. “Moreover, investments by companies and research institutes are small.”

Satisfying 3D printing’s material needs will require “long-term investment and a solid foundation” of research, Feng said.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has been laying the groundwork for a long-term, national strategy for developing 3D printing technology, Caixin has learned. The ministry is preparing to draft relevant standards and regulations. It also plans to introduce tax incentives to encourage development of the new technology.

Immature Market

Proponents of 3D printing say the technology could change the entire structure of global manufacturing, making industry more reliant on computer technology than human labor. It might even revive manufacturing in Western countries.

A report by the U.S. Consumer Electronics Association predicted 3D printing system sales worldwide would rise to US$5 billion by 2017 from US$1.7 billion in 2011. The boom would be a response to auto, aerospace, and medical industry demand, the report said.

Consumer goods and electronics manufacturers are the main buyers of 3D printing systems, accounting for 20 percent of total market share. Other buyers can be found in the auto, medical, and dental supply fields.

About 49,000 3D printing systems were sold worldwide in 2011, according to a Wohlers Report analysis. Some two-thirds of these were made in the United States. Chinese and Japanese manufacturers each could claim about 3.6 percent of the market, the report said.

China’s largest maker of 3D printing systems, Beijing Tiertime Technology Co., handles only a few thousands dollars worth of business in this area every year. Its traditional operations, though, yield annual revenues in the tens of millions of yuan.

Material quality and operational accuracy issues currently prevent 3D printing from reaching its theoretical potential as a means to produce anything, said Guo Ge, Tiertime’s general manager.

As a result, he says, China’s 3D printing sector is still at the start-up stage and needs more time to mature.

“We’re a long way from starting another industrial revolution,” Guo said. “But if more improvements can be made in materials and operational capacity, manufacturing will be transformed.”

Industrial component manufacturers would like to see that transformation sooner rather than later, since 3D printing has the capacity to make models quickly.

For now, though, Feng thinks traditional manufacturing through mass production “is still the most economic” way to produce components. The 3D printing process can only supplement tried and true methods.

Cai is upbeat about 3D printing’s capacity for “green manufacturing,” as it reduces raw material demand and waste.

And although Guo admits more time is needed to fine-tune 3D printing, the technique’s acceptance may accelerate if engineers and researchers achieve more breakthroughs.

“No one imagined how fast computer science would grow when it first got started,” said Guo.

Yan sees key applications for 3D printing in the bioscience sector that may far overshadow engineering uses. Creating human body parts and internal organs, he said, offers a more meaningful use for the technique than making metal parts.

Yan last year launched a company in Jiangsu province that focuses on 3D printing systems for the bioscience sector. One of the company’s systems has shown remarkable potential: “It’s even produced a small piece of meat,” he said.