I visited China for eight days for an invited book tour. The book, titled Fabricated: the new world of 3D printing, was translated into Chinese a few months ago. Our publisher hadn’t told us any more than that, so when my co-author, Hod Lipson, and I got off the plane in Bejing’s airport after a tedious 13-hour flight from Detroit, we were surprised to be met with two bouquets of flowers and warm greetings by several staff members from CITIC Press, the Chinese publisher of our book. CITIC Press staff escorted us to an airport bookstore where the book was featured in a window display. We were delighted to learn that the Chinese translation of Fabricated has been one of the top-selling business and economics books for several weeks in China.
CITIC Press staff were young — most of them appeared under 30 — and their enthusiasm was contagious. They seated us in the back of the bookstore in two, side-by-side throne like wooden chairs and we signed several copies of the book for them and took photos. One of my co-author’s former graduate students, Shuguang Li, (now a postdoc at one of China’s top technical universities — Northwestern Polytechnical University) was kind enough to guide us around throughout our visit, translating and patiently answering our endless questions about Chinese culture, the state of affairs around 3D printing and the economy.
An industrial planet
Since this was my first visit to China, I found myself struggling to find words to describe my awe. China resists simple description. Nor is there a whole lot to say about China that hasn’t already been said.
Books, movies and graduate dissertations describe the ancient scholarly and artistic traditions of Chinese culture, rural village life, and the country’s dark decades of Communism. Economists have detailed the Chinese government’s determination to rapidly modernize China in the 1970s by creating a series of ambitious five-year plans. China’s exquisite cuisine, rich with regional variations, has been interpreted and re-interpreted by thousands of cookbooks and restaurants.
My first impression of Beijing was that I had wandered onto the set of one of those stiff 1970’s science fiction movies. If there were a storyline, it would be that I fell out of a spaceship during a routine commuter flight and landed on an unfamiliar industrial planet. On the drive from the airport to the hotel, cars suddenly loomed out of greyish-green fog and miles of tall, identical apartment buildings dotted the highway. Construction cranes bent their necks while crews of hard-hatted workers built yet more towering buildings. Neon signs covered the sides of buildings.
The summer night air in Beijing has an oily sheen. The night air hung low and moist, clinging to the city’s network of six-lane highways, shrouding densely populated miles of massive apartment buildings, shopping malls and hotels. Beijing was as humid and hot as Southern Georgia during a mid-summer heat wave. In the daytime, summer heat baked the sweltering air into a grey-yellow haze.
Beijing’s heavy smog is made up of a blend of factory emissions from nearby industrial regions where many factories are located, heating coal, and heavy trucks that deliver goods at night. Private vehicles and taxis are another source of air pollution. I was told that about one in six Beijing residents now own a car and the city’s slow-moving waves of idling cars stuck traffic jams add to the smog problem.
Near what could be called downtown Beijing (though the city is so large and sprawling that like L.A., there is no “there there”), our guide pointed out IBM’s China Regional Sales Office, an office building whose top stories curved and curled skywards behind IBM’s distinctive blue logo. From the cab window, the 2008 Olympic Stadium, called “The Nest” by locals floated above a shroud of smog. On the streets, people swarmed everywhere. Mobs of pedestrians ran hastily to cross the street. Speeding buses narrowly missed scooters and bicycles, some with mothers pedaling small children and grocery bags.
My hotel room was a temple of home technology. Back lit wall panels had buttons to control the lights and to open and close the curtains. These buttons operated using a complicated series of toggling that I was never able to figure out. The result was that at night, when trying to turn on the bathroom light, the rococo overhead chandelier would come on, flooding the room with blinding light. One or two nights I gave up and slept in a humid heat box since each time I turned on the air conditioning, the curtains would open.
In Chinese cities, shopping is a national passion. Malls the size of an entire city block teemed with shoppers and shelves of mass-produced merchandise disappeared into shopping carts. In stores and on people’s bodies, familiar brands appeared everywhere. Clothing, luggage, cars and consumer electronics boasted the same brand names that we’re familiar with in the west — Adidas, Samsonite, Apple. It makes sense since after all, since nearly every product we buy was mass-produced in China.
I prowled around an appliance outlet store and was surprised to learn that commonly used home appliances such as washers and vacuum cleaners cost about the same amount as they do in the U.S. Some unfamiliar brands sat on the shelves of China’s ever-present store shelves. Even products with unfamiliar brand names, however, looked strikingly similar to their name-branded Western counterparts. Men’s sports shirts proudly bore brand names like “Notting Hill” and “Romano.” Women’s handbags were stamped with faux-designer names like “Christian Deno” and “La Chaelle.” In tourist markets, gorgeous counterfeit wallets and handbags looked identical to the real thing and cost less than 10% of a real Hermes or Gucci.
Conference on 3D Printing
3D printing is a hot topic in China. The buzzword on everyone’s lips all week was “new industrial revolution.” During the book tour, my co-author and I were invited to speak at one of China’s first 3D printing conferences, Forum on Additive Manufacturing in Beijing.
The conference hall was a majestic old convention center reminiscent of Soviet municipal buildings of the same era. Russian-style painting decorated the ceilings and rows of palatial pillars were wrapped in shiny gold cloth. Outside, a circular fountain sprayed cooling droplets of water to ease the scorching heat that hovered over the central concrete plaza.
The 3D Printing Forum was sponsored by four of China’s ministries and organized by the China Center for Information Industry Development (CCID) and the Chinese Mechanical Engineering Society (CMES). Forum speakers included professors from Chinese universities conducting leading research on 3D printing and Scott Crump, inventor of one of the most widely used 3D printing technologies — FDM — and the CEO of Stratasys. We heard presentations from the executives from several Chinese companies. After lunch, four Ministers spoke about the challenges that belie the Chinese economy.
Speakers at the conference did not sugarcoat China’s economic challenges. Chinese officials and experts openly and clearly described the challenges of a rapidly advancing modern economy that are nibbling away at China’s ability to offer cheap production: salaries are rising, carbon taxes are costly and citizens are increasingly worried about industrial pollution. The cost of making things in China is rising, which is a good thing in the sense that standards of living have skyrocketed in the past few decades.
However, a powerful and successful modern economy also has its downsides. In a sense, China is a victim of its own success. Food and consumer products cost more each year due to a long supply chain made up of increasingly well-paid workers. This wasn’t mentioned in the conference, but housing prices in the larger Chinese cities are higher per square meter of space than in New York or San Francisco.
What many people in the West don’t realize, I think, is that China is home to a huge population of people who embrace innovative technology and are eager to find new, economically productive ways to apply it. All week several journalists and students peppered us with creative and thought provoking questions. One of my favorites: “if someday we have the ability to 3D print an exact copy of a living human being, will the brain and personality of that new 3D printed person be identical to the brain of the original person?”
On the academic front, university researchers are moving forward rapidly in 3D printing metal for the aeronautics industry. For example, in the picture to the right is a ten-foot long titanium 3D printed airplane part created by Professor Huang Weidong at Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU). To print such a large part, Huang and his team also designed a 20-foot tall 3D printer.
China is an energetic economy in transition facing some of the same challenges that have already left their imprint on the U.S. manufacturing sector. In China, the manufacturing sector accounts for about a third of the country’s GDP (half of the U.S.). In the coming years, like the U.S., factory automation will eventually displace millions of low-skilled factory workers. Again similar to the U.S., the future of China’s economy lies in creating new and innovative new business models and inventing breakthrough technologies that will provide decent jobs.