Invited by Outpie Partners, a Netherlands-based company that promotes and facilitates business relationships between China and Europe, we recently had the opportunity to tour many of China’s tech hubs, focusing mainly on AI, from Shenzhen to Hangzhou, and then further up the Chinese East Coast to Shanghai, Wuxi, Jinan, and Bejing. While it’s true that China’s manufacturing is currently focusing almost exclusively on the very large – and AM is not part of the big picture – 3D printing is growing as fast as everything else and we had the opportunity to see it first hand when we visited Latec, a metal 3D printer manufacturer based in Jinan.
During a networking event, which took place within the Sino-German SMEC Conference (dedicated to collaborations between small and medium enterprises), in the city of Jinan, we connected with Shuai Hou. Two years ago he founded Latec as a startup producing industrial metal 3D printers, offering both DED and laser PBF technology. Mr. Hou studied in the UK and spent time at the MTC, Britain’s Manufacturing Technology Center. After moving back to China he created Latec as a startup, spent one year in an incubator, and now, less then two years into it, he has already moved the company to a much larger facility to begin production.
In fact, space inside the new facility is a lot more than needed, since Latec currently manufactures AM systems on-demand, and there are only two machines being worked on when I visit. Shuai has a meeting in Shanghai and could not accompany so I meet with two of his associates who, however, are more focused on the technical side of things and their English was just a little better than my Chinese. Communication was a challenge (especially considering that Google translator is off-limits here) but was still able to gather quite a bit of information.
Latec’s systems are customizable and can cost between $300,000, for the PBF and the smaller DED systems, and $500,000 for the larger Hybrid DED machines. Although Latec is a startup the quality of the systems and the printed parts I am shown is impressive. I don’t think these systems are any less performing than those from other more established firms in the US and Europe. Although Latec does claim to have applied for over 10 patents, I can’t say that the technology appear to be particularly innovative. I think the most impressive aspect is that it really seems quite solid and efficient, leveraging current technology but making it more affordable and producing it on-demand to cater to the Chinese market’s demand.
Most of Latec’s customers come from nearby companies that used them for oil and gas and mining parts, or for production of dies and molds. As I could observe during the various visits during this trip, China is the world’s factory and its production capabilities are enormous. Companies from abroad come here to make millions of parts and to produce very large structures. There is very little incentive to adopt AM and venture into more customized products. And yet Chinese companies will not hesitate to adopt AM where it is needed. And Latec is here to cater to that demand, reporting very significant growth in its first year of operation.
In the end, it felt like AM is one of China’s best-kept secrets. The hype may be over, here like everywhere else, and some may, in fact, see additive manufacturing as a threat to China’s status as the world’s factory. Today it may be just a tiny fraction of China’s production capabilities, but it is already a viable solution for indirect additive manufacturing and some part production. The shift to fully digital direct additive manufacturing will happen – in China as in the rest of the world – relatively fast or at least that’s what young companies like Latec are betting on. And they are already targeting global expansion.