3D Printers

3D Printing & the Chinese Factor — Still Unclear, but Slightly Less So?

Looking at the global 3D printing map there is currently a conundrum that at first glance seems puzzling. One of the oft quoted benefits of 3D printing, and additive manufacturing in particular, is that it will significantly contribute to the reshoring of manufacturing activities to the West, most notably pulling back production. However, the news this week that Stratasys is moving into China following an exclusive deal with Aurora and RNCG’s announcement that it is launching a TCT Asia event in Shanghai November of next year, means the messages may seem a tad mixed.

The Stratasys deal with Aurora, still not announced by Stratasys itself, but by Aurora and therefore published widely across Chinese and American news sites, is about widespread distribution and retail of 3D printers across China. Aurora, a Taiwanese company, has been operating in China since 1993 and is dominant in the electronics and office supplies market — this is a savvy move by Stratasys.

The agreement will see the company’s mid-range 3D printers — they call them the “Idea line” of 3D printers — essentially the Mojo, and the larger uPrint SE and uPrint SE Plus variants, enter the Chinese market via Aurora’s multiple sales channels. These printers are in the US$10,000–20,000 price range. No Makerbot or Fortus machines. Fortus would never retail well through these channels and Makerbot has too many local competitors. What is surprising is that there are no Objet machines. Connex, like Fortus, wouldn’t retail well at this level but I think the lower-end Polyjet platforms would? Maybe that’s one of the wrinkles!

Going back to the savvy move by Stratasys — I think it would be hard to deny that China is playing catch-up with the US & Europe when it comes to 3D printing technologies both in terms of development and adoption. There has been a flurry of clones of entry level 3D printers coming from China over the last 6-12 months, which is standard patter, most of the tech is open source and it’s (relatively) easy to do. But on an industrial scale — not so much. This goes back to the history of the 3D printing industry, and the years of R&D that have gone before — the academic, the industrial and the cross over between the two. Recent news headlines have also pointed to the awakening of the Chinese to the potential of the tech and the multiple billions of dollars now being allocated to technology development and adoption, not to mention the road map(s) for doing so. So why on earth wouldn’t the big 3D printing companies or the events organisers — like Stratasys / RNCG — want a piece of that. It’s a global market after all.

So, while we are only talking about prototyping machines here, looking ahead to manufacturing developments I think what we are looking at is much more of a global village model, based on localised manufacture. I was only taking about this at TCT, ironically with Avi Reichental, in that this is likely where it is all heading — people produce what they need, where they need it (whether they do it themselves or via a 3rd party is a whole other debate). What I hadn’t considered then, but have now, is that they should use the best tools to do it — even if they are not, yet, produced locally.

It’s all still a bit messy, but you can’t deny it’s fascinating.