Hug the Panda: The global 3D printing market split in half –

A friend of mine told me recently, “Chinese 3D printing service bureaus only have Chinese 3D printers”. Another echoed that sentiment, saying, “Businesses here want to buy from here.” Yet another said: “AAll companies only use Chinese machines. A business contact told me, “Buying Chinese is the right thing to do” in the eyes of the government, as well as in the eyes of many people.

The Chinese government is stimulating local growth in high-tech sectors. 3D printing is one of the technologies specifically mentioned in China’s five-year plans. The country sees technological prowess in advanced manufacturing as key to its future.

3D printing is also a very important technology for aerospace engines, missiles and hypersonics. Each of these developments could give China air superiority or prevent the United States and its allies from attacking the country. A hypersonic missile would bypass all existing US countermeasures, while the manufacture of state-of-the-art turbo-mechanics and rocket engines will additionally be strategic for the country.

At the same time, aircraft engine technology is one of the few that the country lacks. Stubbornly pursuing a future in 3D printing and driving that future is therefore a real priority for the nation. Additive manufacturing (AM) is also an enabling technology that makes missiles lighter, could advance electric cars, and could reduce the weight of industrial machines while increasing their efficiency. In this way, our technology supports Chinese leadership in many other areas. In specific segments such as batteries and wind turbines, AM also has an important role to play.

Farsoon’s HT403P installed at BASF AMTC in Shanghai. Image Courtesy: BASF Forward AM

The AF is therefore strategic in Chinese energy and defense policy, and is recognized as such by the government. And once the government decides to push or achieve something, the ducks start to hunker down. Local authorities then claim business, funding and attention around national policy objectives. Institutions, regions and provinces all compete to become the next place of the next revolution. The government then distributes significant cash at many levels to provide progressive leadership in this area. Typically, companies scramble to reach the bottom of the market, but then, through volume growth and increased capacity, foreign products approach.

What is new now is that China’s domestic market is so huge that many companies still want to benchmark their performance with foreign companies, but see no need to go overseas. Startups are “China only” focused and companies in many cases don’t even bother to try to export. In another development, companies such as Hikvision and DJI are showing that Chinese hardware companies can outperform Western competitors quite quickly, aspiring to quickly become dominant in the market. DJI is the leader in drones because it has used a highly competitive local manufacturing base to produce well-designed products that have been marketed well and beat competitors not only on price but also on overall proposition.

What we have seen in recent years is that China’s strategic independence has meant more to it under Xi Jinping. The execution of ZTE by the US and its battle against Huawei shows us all how one man’s national champion is another’s security threat. Measures such as the banning of Chinese companies by Western governments may very well protect the telecommunications infrastructure from prying eyes, but they will serve as a warning to Chinese policymakers.

In China, Doves can no longer make the “happy global village” argument of continuous integration and national competition on an equal footing. Hawks, on the other hand, may see these moves as reinforcing a development path characterized by nationalism and commercial success intertwined. Yes, in fact, we should have national champions, but this time they must be able to operate completely separate from trading partners and foreign markets.

The lesson for Chinese policy makers can only be “we need to do more to be truly independent”. This means that the company will not only have to deal with making the latest chips, but also the fabs that produce them. It is not enough for the company to be an assembler of all things. He must manufacture all the key components. As China assembles all the essential technologies of the future, 3D printing activity in the country has been frenetic.

Many fablabs have been opened. Many companies have been created. And there was a wave of creative destruction. Now we see that China is leading the low-cost desktop 3D printing segment with companies such as Anet and Creality. The country also has a 3D printing offering at all the top prices in every technology imaginable. Regionally, companies like Shanghai Kings have enjoyed considerable success.

While initially only Tiertime really tried to tackle the high-end markets in Europe and the United States, we can now see other companies continuing in this direction as well. Farsoon has a European office and is growing with an increasingly credible range of powder bed fusion systems. BLT (also called X’ian Bright Laser) is expanding overseas with metal systems, as is EPlus. EPlus is probably not well known but has been around for over two decades. Farsoon was founded by Xu Xiaoshu and has also been active for decades. Allen Guo’s Tiertime has also been there for 20 years. Newer companies like INTAMSYS are also making their presence known by expanding overseas. Indeed, this company quickly became one of, if not the largest high temperature extrusion company.

Initially, there was a lot of theft and copying of intellectual property by Chinese companies. Indeed, a friend of mine managed to install a powder bed fusion system in Chinese because the menu structure was copied wholesale from a German company. But with a cohort of companies that have been around for two decades, this is not an unexpected event. We are talking about a long-term concerted effort underway since the 2000s to make Chinese companies dominant in the global AM market.

What we are seeing now is that many Chinese companies are starting to achieve parity with foreign companies. In terms of features and performance, they are peers or near peers in many cases across multiple technologies. Significant tweaks will need to be made to user interfaces, software, content, marketing, and design, but they’re closer than you think. Meanwhile, app development is something that many of these companies are weak at. Likewise, qualifying parts and helping to make them is something they’re also a little behind on.

The service desk market in China has been a tumultuous thing for decades. In general, it can be said that quality has been less of a focus. So here the domestic market won’t be able to keep up as fast as we move into manufacturing. Less numerous, Chinese startups are inventing technologies. There has been less consideration of materials as part of the total equation. As the purchase of polymer powder bed fusion systems in China is underway, stereolithography businesses are growing, and the country is leading in all areas of FDM except industrial, the country has seen less exposure to the metals market. The rigors of the market and real scrutiny await these companies.

But, overall, we can see remarkable success unfolding in China’s industrial policy. This success will accelerate in the years to come. Personally, I don’t believe these companies can really hit the cutting edge of technology right now, but they will come close. During this time, they will have a decisive advantage over all non-Chinese players. By being strategic for their country, they will receive a lot of support. They will have their domestic market almost to themselves while being able to play abroad.

As we can see, the market will then essentially be split in half. On the one hand, we have a Chinese market that is almost exclusively served by Chinese materials, software and equipment. Regardless of that, we will have a global market. And only very few companies will be able to take advantage of local dominance and use it to export certain systems to the other market, and these companies will be more and more Chinese in the future.

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