Not so fast America! China wants to be a 3D printing player too.

3D printed 3-meter titanium wingspar. Made in China.

3D printed, experimental 3-meter titanium wingspar. Made in China.

You’ve heard it over and over – 3D printing will spark an American industrial revolution that will bring manufacturing back home from China. Yes, it will. But don’t think that means that America will necessarily retain the lead in 3D printer technology. China will have something to say about that.

Perhaps it’s because President Obama signaled out investments in 3D printing in his State of the Union address last week, but story upon story have come out since then regarding China’s own investments in additive manufacturing. They have been quite busy.

It all began when mechanical engineering professor at Tsinghua University, Yan Yongnian, introduced 3D printing to China in the late 1980s, after he heard about Charles Hull’s work on the subject. Hull is the co-founder of 3D Systems. Yongnian and a colleague came to the United States and bought some of Hull’s equipment to bring back to China, and also sought out U.S. scholars to lecture in China.

Research has moved forward quickly since then, with China setting up four major research centers in the country. These include Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Tsinghua University, Xi’an Jiaotong University, and a Beijing-based company named Beijing Longyuan Industrial Stock Co.

Each of the three universities has started a business involving 3D printing. For example, Lu Bingheng, head of the mechanical and engineering department at Xi’an Jiaotong University, and his team are working on bringing down the cost of 3D printers, with the goal of putting them into middle schools en masse. And a Huazhong University of Science and Technology research team led by Professor Wang Huaming has been working on a 3D printing breakthrough called Laser Engineering Net Shaping (LENS) that produces large, complex parts.

The technologies developed at universities are quickly utilized in commercial and military applications. For example, LENS led to a 90% cost savings over traditional manufacturing methods in the production of a wing part for the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China’s C919 jetliner. If this technology were adopted by U.S. aircraft manufacturers to create now-forged titanium parts, the weight of an F-22 could be reduced by as much as 40 percent, according to a report on ChineseWeb site, Guancha Zhe. The report also said that the cost for these parts can be reduced by 95%. The Northwestern Polytechnical University of China is also in the game, making three meter-long titanium wing beams for the upcoming C919 airliner.

Of course, the Chinese military is all over 3D printing. The LENS technology is making its way into China’s fifth generation of fighter jets, the J-20 and J-31. And, former General Manager at Wuhan Binhu Mechanical & Electrical Co., which was created by Huazhong University of Science and Technology, said “We’ve had many military projects.” I’ll bet they have.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is involved, of course. They are drafting a national strategy for developing 3D printing technology, creating standards and regulations, and plan to introduce tax incentives to jumpstart the industry.

China is also getting into bioprinting. In fact, Tsinghua’s Yongnian says that 3D printing in the biosciences may offer more opportunities than engineering uses, making body parts rather than metal parts. In fact, Yongnian has launched a company that focuses on just that. He says they’ve even already produced a piece of meat.

Also in the bioscience area, Lin Feng, deputy director of the mechanical and engineering department at Tsinghua University, is working on 3D cell structure printing, with hopes that the research will yield breakthroughs in fighting diseases like cancer.

Recently, at its third Council meeting, China’s 3D Printing Industry Alliance revealed plans to build a 3D printing technology industry innovation center in Cehngdu, in southwest China. The center will be funded by the alliance and by local government. $80 million will be invested, plus up to $32 million for supporting local research projects. And knowing China, there’s not going to be a lot of pork in the project, which is always a sad reality with any government action here in the U.S.

No, China is not standing by, content to watch the United States and Western Europe keep the lead in additive manufacturing. These stories are but just a taste of what’s going on in China, taken from a slew of information just released in the last few weeks. There’s more, much more, that’s going on there. They even have their own 3D printing stock boom (I’m working on finding investment opportunities).

In the future, nations will be 3D printing much of their goods locally, and manufacturers will be prototyping complex parts locally as well. There is really no fear that countries like the U.S. will import 3D printed goods from China, and no hope that China will import 3D printed products from the U.S. and others – there’s no financial benefit in that. However, I would not count on U.S. companies exporting 3D printers to China, even though they are doing so now. They’ll surely make their own printers. Let’s just hope that we’ll continue to build our own as well, and not end up purchasing them from China. Not only can China innovate on their own, but as we’ve seen in the news this week, they seem to have no problem getting their hands on American designs. And they also have no qualms about ignoring intellectual copyright law. It’s quite possible that China will eventually make 3D printers better and cheaper — or even just of similar function and quality, but still cheaper. While we will be 3D printing many of our goods at home in the future — and that’s enough to radically improve our economy — will we be doing so on Chinese printers?

It’s early still, so we’ll have to see how it all plays out. But one thing is certain: China will be a player.

Oh, by the way, have you seen the hottest 3D printer-related Kickstater project today – maybe even the hottest Kickstarter project of any kind yet? It’s the “hand-held 3D printer,” the 3Doodle. It’s going to be manufactured in China.

Sources: MarketWatch, China Daily