写在前面:这篇文章初载于USA TODAY 2:33 p.m. EST December 1, 2013。作者是Paul Davidson和Nina Trentmann。小编在这里做一个简单的翻译,以供参考。由于时间和水平有限,翻译难免有所疏漏,因此附上英文原版,有任何不当之处,欢迎指正。_Amy

China chasing U.S. lead in 3-D printing

SHANGHAI — Manufacturers hoping to use 3-D printing technology to slash labor costs and bring some production back to the U.S. from China didn’t foresee this: China is furiously developing its own 3-D printing industry.

3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is still in the early stages in China, and the world’s second-largest economy is far behind the U.S. But China has made significant strides this year in its effort to modernize its reputation as a center of cheap mass production. Some American industry officials say the U.S. should step up its investments to maintain its advantage.

Here at DF Robot’s production facility in the Zhangjiang Business Park, a roomful of humming 3-D printers and robots substitute for a traditional factory’s clanking presses and churning milling machines. One printer spews layer after layer of green molten plastic onto a canvas until an iPhone case takes shape in seven hours. Soon after, the versatile printer molds a pair of black high-heel shoes — a more complex task that takes 26 hours.

“Since 2012, we have seen a strong increase in demand for our printers,” says Ricky Ye, CEO and founder of DF Robot, which both manufactures printers and uses them to make product prototypes on a contract basis.

3-D printers look like document printers but crank out 3-dimensional objects. Based on a digital design, they lay down hundreds or thousands of layers of powdered metal or plastic until parts or entire products are sculpted.

Since the 1980s, U.S. manufacturers largely have used the printers to quickly create prototypes. In recent years, a growing number have turned out limited runs of actual products, such as surgical tools and medical implants, as well as certain parts in airplanes, cars and other machines. Entrepreneurs and hobbyists are also snapping up inexpensive “personal” printers to make jewelry, toys and other trinkets.

In China, 3-D printers are making prototypes and quirky objects for consumers but — apart from artificial teeth and dental implants — lag in end-user part production. That’s the more critical sector that has the potential to transform manufacturing.
在中国,3D打印机正为消费者制造各种原型体和古怪的物品,但是——除了假牙和牙科移植方面——滞后于末端用户的产品生产(End-user part production)。而这恰是3D打印有可能改变制造业的较为关键的一部分。

Whether deployed in China or the U.S., 3-D printing can yield significant reductions in labor costs. Just a few employees oversee dozens of automatic printers, matching the production of several hundred or thousands of workers in standard factories.

3-D printers also cut waste, reduce lead times for product rollouts and are better than conventional factory machines at customizing objects. But they’re expensive and not adept at mass production, making them most suitable for limited runs of niche products.
另外,3D打印机减少了废料的产生,缩短了产品推广期的交货时间,在生产个性化产品方面也比传统机器更有优势。然而,它们价格昂贵、且不适用于大规模生产的特点,让3D打印机更适用于做利基产品的限量生产。(小编注:利基产品是指该产品表现出来的许多独特利益有别于其他产品,同时也能得到消费者的认同。每一种产品被消费者接受都有它的利益所在,利益表现出来是多方面的。_by MBA智库百科)

In China, about 17,000 mostly personal 3-D printers are in operation, estimates Terry Wohlers, president of consulting firm Wohlers Associates. The U.S. has about 47,000, and nearly half are industrial, he says.
据Wohlers Associates咨询公司的主席Terry Wohlers估计,在中国有大约有17,000台个人3D打印机正在运转;在美国这个数字则是47,000台,其中将近一半是工业用的。

Yet China is closing the gap. The country’s stock of 3-D printers has grown more than sevenfold since 2008, Wohlers says. He says national interest in the technology intensified early this year after President Obama proclaimed in his State of the Union address: “3-D printing has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

“The comment more than lit a spark in China — it started a bonfire,” Wohlers says, adding that Chinese sales of 3-D printers have surged.

Their growing popularity is laying the foundation for wider usage of 3-D printing in manufacturing. Wohlers says the Chinese government and industry ultimately intend to use the technology to make high-tech parts and “high-value finished products.”

For now, even the spread of personal printers has huge potential, says Ye of DF Robot. “It takes forever to produce a prototype or a mold,” he says. “Once you have a 3-D printer at home or in the office, you can speed up the innovation process. Many more people will be able transform their ideas into real products.”

China’s government, meanwhile, is sowing the seeds for industrial production, opening a 3-D research center this year and planning nine more. With Chinese labor costs rising sharply the past few years, the country has been losing production to factories in Vietnam and Bangladesh that pay lower wages. 3-D printing can help preserve China’s reputation as “the factory of the world” while expanding beyond labor-intensive assembly lines, Ye says.

Developing the industry, however, will require retraining a work force of old-line factory employees. “We will need less unskilled workers if we use 3-D printers more frequently,” Ye says.

Also, few Chinese engineers have the technical know-how to build the printers, says Jack Wu, the China representative of EOS E-Manufacturing Solutions, a German company that operates a research facility in Shanghai. Entrepreneurs and manufacturers, meanwhile, must be educated.
另外,一家在上海设有研发中心的德国企业EOS电子制造解决方案的中国代表Jack Wu说,很少的中国工程师知道设计3D打印机具体的技术原理,导致企业家和制造商必须是受过教育的。

“There are customers that buy the most expensive 3-D printer and only use it once a week,” says Kim Francois, head of the Chinese unit of Belgium-based Materialise, which builds printers and does contract printing and research. “Of course, such an investment will never pay off.”
“有一些顾客,买了最贵的3D打印机,却只一周用一次。”提供研究、制造和打印服务的比利时Materialise的中国部主管Kim Francois说道,“这样的投资当然永远不会有回报”。

Francois teaches Chinese elementary and high schools students how to use the printers. “This is the next generation of Chinese entrepreneurs,” she says. “If they get to use 3-D-printers early in their lives, they will potentially become much more innovative than their parents.”

3-D, she adds, can help China transition from a “copy culture” that makes products designed elsewhere to one that turns out more domestically designed goods.

Wu thinks China will move swiftly to try to close ground with Western nations. “Companies, schools, universities and individuals will start using this,” he says.

U.S. officials are taking notice. Ralph Resnick, founding director of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown in Ohio, says China’s advances underscore the need for the U.S. to continue to invest in the technology.
这引起了美国官员们的注意。俄亥俄洲杨斯敦国家加法制造创新研究所创始人Ralph Rensnick说,中国的进步非常需要美国继续投资该项技术。

“I think China’s initiative has the potential to continue to make China more competitive,” Resnick says. As other countries develop 3-D, “we have an innovation edge that has been slipping.”

Davidson reported from McLean, Va., and Trentmann reported from Shanghai.