A recent survey conducted by Belgian 3D printing company Materialise has shed some light onto how Chinese manufacturing companies view 3D printing: how it fits into the manufacturing sector, what its benefits and limitations are and, importantly, how its adoption could impact China’s dominant role in the manufacturing world.
For many years, China has been a powerhouse in global manufacturing. Its position as a leading low-cost manufacturing provider have seen the Asian country come to have the second largest economy in the world. Within the global AM industry, China is also increasing its stake in additive technologies, investing in R&D, new technologies and adoption.
Still, for many Chinese manufacturing companies, there are still reservations about the technology and the role it will ultimately come to play in industrial production. For instance, the majority of surveyed manufacturers suggested that AM is suitable primarily for prototyping rather than end-use production and many expressed concerns that as global AM adoption grows, China’s position as a manufacturing leader could be challenged.
“For many years, China has been considered to be the factory of the world because of its great efficiency and capability in producing goods and its export-oriented transport infrastructure,” said Stefaan Motte, Vice President and General Manager of the Materialise software division. “Today, China faces increasing competition from both newly emerging economies and highly-industrialized countries in an attempt to take a larger slice of its low-cost manufacturing base.”
The power of digital manufacturing
Despite these reservations, the survey conducted by Materialise in China does seem to affirm that 3D printing is here to stay. One third of Chinese manufacturers believe strongly that 3D printing will become as or more important than traditional manufacturing processes. 7% even reported that they believe it will replace traditional manufacturing. As the technology currently stands, however, the vast majority consider it appropriate for prototyping applications: 63% believe that AM is mature enough for the production of visual prototypes, 34% believe it is suitable for functional prototypes, but only 11% believe the technology is ready for end-use production.
Among the main benefits of the technology, design freedom stands out with 72% identifying it as the biggest advantage of 3D printing. 66% reported customization as a key benefit and 51% said the ability to bring products to market faster was also important. 76% of surveyed manufacturers also agreed that additive manufacturing was a more sustainable approach to manufacturing than traditional processes.
The limitations of AM
Looking at the limitations of AM and its adoption, Chinese manufacturers perceived the limited range of materials as the main hurdle (49%). Another key challenge highlighted in the survey was cost, with 42% believing the cost of machines was an inhibitor to adoption and 39% believing that the cost of materials was prohibitive.
In addition to cost and material selection, the survey also revealed that lack of skills was a big hurdle for adoption (41%). The combination of these limitations has had an impact on how Chinese manufacturers view the technology: only 15% of the surveyed companies are considering adopting the technology, while 65% have never seriously considered it.
This does not mean, however, that the majority of manufacturers are not using AM at all. A significant portion of those surveyed (44%) say that they prefer working with an external 3D printing service provider instead of adopting AM in house. Interestingly, 40% of the participants said they would work with a hybrid model, partially 3D printing in house and outsourcing to an external service bureau.
Impact of AM
As additive technologies continue to advance and adoption continues to grow across the world, it is a perfectly reasonable thing to question how the technology will affect economies and global manufacturing markets. Because AM is slated to encourage localized, on-demand production, it could influence China’s leading position as a manufacturer.
“China still holds a competitive edge in manufacturing,” explained Motte. “And I believe the country will remain a global manufacturing powerhouse for the foreseeable future. However, China understands that it needs to lift the game on its manufacturing competitiveness to face increasing competition and to move away from being the world’s low-cost workshop. 3D printing plays an important role in this plan.”
According to the survey, 40% of respondents believe that 3D printing has the potential to disrupt the global distribution models of goods. Half of Chinese manufacturers hold the belief that as AM becomes adopted more globally, it will challenge China’s leading position in the manufacturing sector. Still, that doesn’t mean adoption won’t also be on the rise in China: 49% of respondents believe that the adoption of 3D printing in China will double in the next five years. (39% said that the use of 3D printing will only increase marginally.)
“Meanwhile, China is modernizing its industrial capability by embracing high-tech intensive manufacturing, as part of its Made in China 2025 initiative, promoting smart production technologies such as 3D printing,” Motte concluded. “We believe there is an opportunity for industry leaders like Materialise to collaborate with Chinese manufacturers to discover the potential of 3D printing end-use products, to identify meaningful applications and to stimulate adoption by removing some of the remaining hurdles.”