What 3D printing means for China, the world's biggest factory
Technicians work on the assembly of 3D printing machines at the Stratasys factory in Rehovot, Israel. Photo: Bloomberg
It's easy to get caught up in the buzz around 3D printing. It allows everyone from hobbyists to aerospace engineers to create customised products – toys, prosthetics, even jet engine parts– from the convenience of their home or office.
And while "disruption" is an overused word in the tech world, it's hard not to wonder how 3D printing might affect global manufacturing and the country in the middle of it all: China.
Of course, not everyone is sold on the big promise of 3D printers, which build objects by laying down thin layers of molten plastic, one on top of the other. In June, the South China Morning Post reported billionaire Terry Gou called the printing technology "a gimmick". You might expect that from the founder of the world's largest contract manufacturer of electronics, the Foxconn Technology's Hon Hai Precision Industry, which has huge factories in China. The company didn't respond to a request for comment.
To get another view of the potential impact on China, I caught up last week with 3D printing pioneer Scott Crump, the co-founder and chairman of Stratasys. While the company takes issue with Gou's description of the technology, Crump doesn't see China's enormous manufacturing business being adversely affected by 3D printing, at least for now.
Crump, who invented the technology known as fused deposition modelling, said there's a big movement in the US and elsewhere to bring some manufacturing home with the help of 3D printing.
"That doesn't necessarily mean that the mass manufacturing in China or Taiwan or Korea is going to go away," he said during an interview at the Inside 3D Printing Conference in San Jose, California. "I think the pie is getting bigger."
The main draw of 3D printing is to build custom or low-volume items that aren't being mass manufactured, Crump said.
"With 3D printing, we're expanding in the niches that aren't covered," he said. "This concept of bringing the manufacturing back local is a disruptor, but I don't think it's a disruptor where it necessarily reduces the total build in places like China."
Stratasys, which has dual headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and Rehovot, Israel, has reasons to be optimistic about the Chinese market. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for about a quarter of the company's sales, and China has grown quickly to account for a big chunk of that, the company said. Stratasys had revenues of $US359 million ($383 million) in 2012.
However, China "can be a substantial competitor", said Crump, who recalled a recent visit to Shanghai where he discussed the 3D printing business with a government official.
"You could see in the meeting they really wanted to work with us; they needed our help," he said. But in the end, they "just want to compete with you".