How Will 3D Printing Change China?


Anyone who follows tech news even a little bit should be aware of 3D printing by this point. If you’re not, here’s a quick video primer on the technology and how it works. The short version is that 3D printers are a little bit like the replicator from Star Trek: they take designs stored in the computer and turn them into real-world objects (although at present they’re limited to mostly small plastic objects and they’re not nearly as fast as Star Trek replicators). And now there are even 3D scanners that can scan an object, create a digital 3D model of it, and then “print” copies of the object using a 3D printer.

This technology, once it is fully developed and widely affordable, is likely to be so life-changing that it’s difficult for us to fully imagine or predict the ways in which it might change things. One of the more widely-heard predictions is that 3D printing could severely disrupt China’s manufacturing sector, especially in industries that produce small plastic objects (buttons, coat hangers, cups, combs, and on and on) that could be easily replaced by 3D printed objects once 3D printers are affordable enough to be widespread.

That’s certainly possible, although China is already moving towards a consumer economy and may prove to have dodged this bullet completely depending on how fast 3D printing catches on once prices go down and how quickly China’s economy can move. But manufacturing changes are just one possible repercussion of 3D printing.

Among other things, if 3D printing catches on in China, it is likely to lead new regulations and probably tighter internet controls to regulate what people are allowed to print out. 3D printing enthusiasts have already figured out how to print working lower thirds for firearms like this semi-automatic rifle. When the technology has developed further, it might even be possible to print out other parts of both guns and their ammunition, making the the construction of DIY guns a realistic possibility. Knives and containers for explosives are also a possibility in the long-term. Since many of those things are illegal in China, 3D printer design models will have to be tightly controlled to ensure people can’t build their own guns at home. (Read more about buying guns online in China).

But 3D printing is likely to change more than just where people get their cheap plastic crap and whether or not they can build guns at home. It could change everything from car repair (imagine printing out your own replacement parts) to medical prosthetics (imagine if everyone could quickly print custom prosthetics made specifically for themselves). It’s also likely to destroy a lot of industries, especially if China’s controls on intellectual property for 3D models prove to be as lax as they have been for entirely digital content like movies and music. If you can download a bittorrent file full of 3D printer models for free, all kinds of industries (and not just industries in China) are going to be in trouble.

Of course, how big a thing you can print out out depends on how big your printer is, and at the moment most printers can only use one material to print. I don’t imagine it’s likely that many Chinese are going to purchase bulky 3D printers for their homes even after prices drop; rather, I would imagine that 3D printing might be integrated into the services of the local print shops that now offer scanning and photocopying services. Imagine realizing you need a new bottle opener and, instead of going to the supermarket or a department store, running to the local print shop to print one out.

Rogue gun makers aside, it all sounds pretty cool, and as a Star Trek fan, I applaud any technology that takes us closer to becoming the Federation (next step: warp drives and holodecks). But I can’t help but feel like I’m suffering from a lack of imagination here. So I put the question to you: how is the 3D printing revolution likely to change China (or Asia in general)?

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