China Lays Groundwork For Asian, World Lead In 3D Printing
A Shanghai engineering firm made news when it built 10 houses of 200 square meters apiece. The developer, Shanghai WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co., had used 3D printers to push out the concrete-only structures for just $4,800 apiece, the 3D printing news organization 3ders.org reports.
It may not be a big deal on its own, given that printers have published houses in San Francisco and somewhere in Russia. But China is leading Asia, a continent full of tech-savvy countries, in making the most of this 30-year-old technology due to eager government support and a list of industries willing to use it. China could even be on the way to world dominance in 3D printing.
Institutions in China spent $1.1 billion on 3D printing last year, market research firm IDC says. It calls China “the force” behind 3D printing growth in Asia. The sub-sector worldwide will command a market worth $32.78 billion by 2023 on a compound annual growth rate of 25.76% from last year, research firm Markets and Markets estimates. Falling production costs, ease of customizing goods and government investments are driving that growth, the research firm says in a report.
Government investment explains much of the uptrend in China. Subsidies have already boosted semiconductors and electric vehicles. Now, the country is homing in on policy to advance printers.
China got moving in 2015 when the government released its national “Made in China 2025" initiative to foster advanced technology. Printing objects was “regarded as an enabler” for that plan, IDC lead analyst Mun Chun Lim says. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released a separate plan to develop China's 3D printing industry in 2015 and 2016. That mission, the National 3D Printing Industry Development Promotion Plan (2015-2016), establishes goals for innovation and commercialization of 3D printing.
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Adding another layer to the process, the ministry came up with a second action plan in December to develop additive manufacturing, an offshoot of 3D printing. The plan would train people and promote two or three local brands to be competitive, taking this side of the 3D printing industry to $3 billion by 2020, Lim says.
Rivals in Asia
Around the same time, a government incubator in Taiwan was pushing its own technologically savvy homeland in 2014 to make the most of 3D printing, which normally generates toys, machine parts, medical implants and some kinds of food. The incubator had formed an alliance of 90 Taiwanese companies keen to work with one another on developing 3D printers, the printing stock and related software.
In South Korea, another Asian tech powerhouse, the government set out last year to invest some $37 million for speeding the development of 3D printing, TCT Mag reports.
Germany and the U.S. lead the world in 3D printing but stand to lose out to China and Australia, the A.T. Kearney management consultancy says. (The Australian government is active, as well, and metal 3D printing is likely to strengthen in the country already dependent on mining as an economic source.)
Chinese printing entrepreneurs
The Chinese government is “preparing the future workforce” by introducing 3D printing technologies in education, Lim says. This is key, as the country lacks an innovative 3D printing workforce today, the analyst says.
Printed car parts, architectural models and even gelatin for cooking class can all help university students learn their trades. Moving up the value chain, healthcare, shipbuilding and aerospace are also expected to want printed objects.
Chinese 3D printing companies to look out for, domestically as well as abroad: UnionTech, Xi'an Bright Laser Technologies and Hunan Farsoon High Technology. "China has some very diversified players, where it consists of worldwide and local vendors,” Lim says.
Over the next five years China must not only think creatively about how to print new objects but also how to regulate them, analysts say. Imagine a home buyer's hesitation moving into one of the first 3D printed buildings.
The country would need industry standards and certifications to make sure the industry develops smoothly.
“Due to the rapid expansion and proliferation of 3D printing in China, one of the toughest challenges will be the safety issue for both industrial and private consumer users of 3D printed products,” says Christopher Hang-Kwang Lim, a tech-specialized senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“If one were to consider a matrix of an ever-expanding list of raw materials used in the 3D printing industry...then it would not be hard to visualize the complexities involved in setting up safety standards, and to monitor and enforce safety standards, assuming there is an acceptable standard," he says.