January, 2016

Many people in the West associate China with its seemingly limitless supply of cheap labor and old school manufacturing prowess. Increasingly, however, the Chinese are asking how they can participate in the innovative, knowledge driven additive manufacturing revolution. It is no easy task to change course after having spent so much time and energy creating such a massive industrial manufacturing infrastructure. In fact, some experts predict that China’s inability to quickly tack as the wind changes will result in the re-emergence of the United States as an international leader in manufacturing, this time of the additive kind.

While the emphasis in Chinese manufacturing has long been on the production of inexpensive (read: low quality) goods due to the abundant supply of labor, in recent years the gap in wages between workers in the United States and those of workers in China has been steadily shrinking.

Rather than competing to provide the most for the least, many experts contend that the only path that will lead China to a successful future in manufacturing is one that is driven by innovation. Ronnie Chan, the Chairman of Hang Lung Group, a real estate development firm in Hong Kong, is among those who would like to see China engage in creating the future rather than simply out-producing it:

“[L]abor is perhaps no longer the most important force, not to mention that differences between labor costs in the US and China have shrunken considerably in recent years. China is on its way to become a strong nation, and for that we need innovation. But while we innovate, we also need to persist in areas such as craftsmanship.”

CHNA_MAN_07_04China has been accused of a continual failure to innovate, such as when there was a boom in the creation of solar technologies, but no parallel explosion of innovation in solar technologies. The problems created by this focus on production were defined by Gary Rieschel, the founding managing partner of a Shanghai-based venture capital firm, Qiming Venture Partners, and he lays the blame firmly at the feet of Chinese failure to innovate:

China-Flag“An army of new investors lacking new technologies quickly reduced solar equipment manufacturing to a loss-making industry. By 2009 there were 117 manufacturers of poly-silicon cells in China. So what was a 19 percent growth margin business in 2005 and 2006 turned into a negative growth margin business from 2009 – 2014.”

The key to harnessing the successes of 3D printing lies in doing more than simply capturing the technologies and throwing a lot of manpower at them. Instead, the Chinese must understand the creative possibilities presented and in turn, forge their own creative pathways. The very nature of 3D printing means that scale of production is no longer of primary important, thus removing the foundation of what made China into a powerhouse in manufacturing.

China has always brought brute force to the marketplace and in old world manufacturing, that force was a highly valuable resource. In today’s post-industrial, knowledge based, creative economy, the real success lies in finesse. The question now is, can China develop the softer, more patient touch required to equal its aspirations for success?  Discuss this story in the China 3D Printing forum thread on 3DPB.com.


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