Move over United States. China takes interest in 3DP Revolution.
Competing with the US: China expands 3D printing research and innovation. (Part 1) (Read Part 2)
By Tyler Hooper
Recently, the Chinese government has accelerated investment in 3D printing technology. These latest developments are largely due to the increasing global popularity of 3D printing. Additive manufacturing, has grown substantially on a global level in the past decade, with the U.S. leading the way in both production and innovation. As a result, the Chinese are attempting to compete with their American counter parts, and although they are still in the process of harnessing the technology, significant advancements have been made.
In October 2012, the Chinese Academy of Engineering launched its first research initiative into 3D printing. Since then, the popularity of additive manufacturing has grown in the country evolving around four major research facilities: Tsinghua University, Xi’an Jiatong University, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, and Beijing-based company Longyuan Industrial Stock Co.
The 3D Printing Experience Pavilion opened in January 2013 at the DRC Industrial Design and Cultural Industry Base in Beijing. The Pavilion allowed visitors to experience how 3D printing works first-hand, and visitors could even have their heads scanned and made into 3D plastic models. Public showcases like this educate the public about additive manufacturing and help raise its popularity among the media.
In early February 2013, the 3DP Industry Alliance announced that they plan to establish a 3D printing technology industry innovation center in Chengdu, in southwest China. The innovation calls for 3DP and the Shuangliu County government to co-fund the project. Total investment by both parties is estimated at $500 million Chinese Yuans, which amounts to approximately $80 million U.S. dollars. This innovation is one of the first of its kind in China and has the potential to increase interest and investments in the technology. However, although innovation and research for 3D printing may be on the rise in China, there are hurdles facing the advancement of the technology.
One of the major obstacles holding back China’s 3D researchers is the lack of quality materials that can be used to create 3D printed objects. In part, this is due to the lack of investments being put towards additive manufacturing. Chinese investment in 3D research has been minimal compared to the U.S., and without an increase in funding, long-term development of the technology will be a slow process. Part of this has to due with current hesitation by Chinese investors to invest in something that is still considered relatively new and in early stages of development. Despite these challenges, many have speculated that additive manufacturing could have a profound impact on China’s manufacturing industry. The outcome will depend on how accepting the consumer economy is towards the technology, how quickly funding and investments increase, and how quickly China’s economy can adapt to additive manufacturing innovation. But at the very least, the technology is progressing.
Recently, China.org.cn interviewed Lu Bingheng, head of the mechanical and engineering department at Xi’an Jiaotong University. During the interview, Bingheng stated, “3D printing technology is consistently improving. It just needs more research and development to make it possible to print using various materials. It is also worth noting there is no technology that can do absolutely anything.” Bingheng recognizes the limitation of 3D printing, but appears optimistic about its technological improvements.
Debates are starting to arise, parallel to those in the U.S., on the limitations of what can be printed and how (or if) the technology should be regulated. Discussion of intellectual property will also be an issue, due largely to the fact that the Chinese government is already known for its stringent measures on issues pertaining to privacy and public/private ownership.
Chinese researchers and engineers have also begun to explore the prospect of 3D printing contributing to constructing Chinese military equipment. Although additive manufacturing in China is still a long ways away from being able to create parts for military aircraft, engines and missiles, research and initiative is making progress. The Chinese Air Force has embraced additive manufacturing in hopes of reducing the weight of titanium parts for China’s fifth generation fighter jets, the J-20 and J-31. In addition, Chinese researchers have also begun to explore the possibility of using 3D printing in commercial aviation.