3D printing is the work of Western civilization. Although the Japanese Hideo Kodama played an important role among the people working on the concept and early development of additive technologies in the 70s and 80s of the last century, ultimately the creation of 3D printing is credited with the American Charles Hull. The first companies manufacturing 3D printers were established in the USA (3D Systems and Stratasys), the first company providing 3D printing services was established in Belgium (Materialise), and the key players in the field of developing 3D metal printing technology were German companies (including EOS). The concept of cheap, amateur 3D printers developed under the RepRap Project, was created by the British university professor – Dr Adrian Bowyer, and the first company producing them was the American MakerBot. Meanwhile, it may turn out that in the middle of the current decade, the 3D printing market will be completely dominated by Chinese companies. And probably we can not do anything about it…?
Officially, the additive manufacturing technology was invented is 1984, and the first company making 3D printers – 3D Systems, was established two years later. We do not have accurate information when 3D printing came to China, but we know that the first Chinese company operating in this field – Beijing Yinhua Laser Rapid Prototypes Making & Mold Technology Co., Ltd., debuted only 12 years after 3D Systems, i.e. in 1998. Over the next ten years, Chinese companies in that area were relatively quiet – the first significant breakthrough came after 2010, when TierTime gained attraction of the market with its 3D printers working in FDM technology.
In 2013 the Chinese government recognized 3D printing technology as one of the most important areas of economic development and launched a number of educational and economic programs related to it. For example, in 2015, Simon Shen – CEO of Kinpo Group, a leading Asian electronics group, said in an interview that according to his knowledge, the Chinese government implemented a new directive under which by the end of 2016 each of 400,000 primary schools in China will be equipped with a 3D printer. At that time, it seemed something amazing and absurd – according to the estimates of the analytical company Gartner, at that time around 200-250 thousand 3D printers were sold in the world every year, so half of what China was supposed to implement in their schools. Today, in retrospect, we already know that it was a great decision for the Chinese…
In 2015, the first cheap 3D printers made in China began to reach European and American markets. Their prices at that time constituted approx. 30-40% of the value of what local companies offered. Fortunately for Europeans and Americans, the quality of Asian devices was really poor, but unfortunately all this was soon about to change. The Chinese learned very well from mistakes and with the increase in revenues generated by the sale of the devices, they began to gradually improve their constructions, while lowering prices more and more.
In 2017, 3D printers for self-assembly appeared on Chinese trading platforms like AliExpress or GearBest for USD 250-500. In the summer of the same year, the Tronxy X1 3D printer came to the offer of the above-mentioned stores, costing less than USD 120 in the promotion! For comparison, other devices of this class produced in USA and Europe cost USD 450 – 1000. As expected, the quality of the 3D printer for less than USD 120 was mean and its performance was terrible, but… the device operational, still printed something and was equipped with several technical solutions that impressed the ingenuity and creativity of Chinese engineers. Suddenly it turned out that everyone can afford a 3D printer. Devices with exotic names such as “Anet”, “Tevo Tarantula” or “JGAurora” conquered European markets, while in the USA the Monoprice 3D printers, manufactured by one of many Chinese electronics producers, became a real sales hit on Amazon. At the end of 2017, Monoprice found its way to the top five largest 3D printer manufacturers in the world, and its success was essentially due to the fact that its devices just met the tastes of the Americans – there was no particular marketing or trade strategy behind it.
In 2018, Western producers began to feel the growing dominance of Chinese producers. Bankruptcy was announced in turn by Solidoodle, Type A Machines, MOD-t and the symbol of the American open-source movement – Printrbot. In 2019, another important American producer was on the brink of bankruptcy – LulzBot, who was saved at the last moment from the fall by a company that previously dealt with sale and service of these devices. In Europe, most manufacturers of desktop 3D printers have abandoned the amateur segment, focusing on expensive, professional solutions. The only company that still focuses on home users is the Czech producer PRUSA Research, run by the charismatic Josef Průša – one of the main animators of the RepRap movement in the world. Every year, PRUSA breaks device sales records, but it is a peculiar exception confirming the rule that cheap 3D printers are the domain of the Chinese.
In 2019, another manufacturer celebrated its triumph – Anycubic, whose flagship model is Photon – a printing device with light-cured resins costing less than USD 1000. Photopolymer 3D printers are characterized by higher precision of 3D printing than printing devices from thermoplastic in the form of a fishing line, however, they are also more demanding in terms of handling (post-processing) and more expensive in operation. Until 2017, their prices were around USD 5000 – Anycubic reduced this level by a factor of ten… The key was the production method itself – in photopolymer 3D printers, the resin is cured with light emitted by a laser or DLP projector. In the first case, the beam control system is expensive, while in the second lamps used in projectors. In Chinese 3D printers, an LCD projector was used as the light source. It was this solution that drastically reduced prices – although the original creator of this method was once again a company from Europe – the British Photocentric Ltd.
All the cases mentioned above apply to 3D printers, while China has long dominated the market of parts and components needed for their construction. Hobbyists and amateurs of new technologies independently building or expanding their devices, purchase the vast majority of them on AliExpress, GearBest or Banggood.
The segment of professional machines with an industrial or medical application still seems to be the mainstay of incremental technologies in the Western edition. The position of such companies as GE Additive (Concept Laser and Arcam), EOS, SLM Solutions, HP or the mentioned 3D systems and Stratasys seems to be safe. However, Chinese companies are also getting better in this field. Farsoon Technologies has been paving the way for 3D metal printing for several years, and at last year’s Formnext 2019 in Frankfurt am Main, Chinese manufacturers of metalworking and light-curing resins in a professional edition were one of the biggest surprises.
China has been following the path of global technological domination over the Western world for several years. When it comes to 3D printing, this is one of those areas where it is particularly visible.