"I decided to give up my dream of getting a doctorate when 3D printing technology saw a pickup in growth in the US and Europe. I thought it might be time to start my own business," said Jin Tao, recalling his decision to set off in pursuit of a 3D printing business in late 2008 rather than going for a PhD from the University of Hong Kong.
A year after receiving a master's degree in computer science from Zhejiang University in 2007, Jin went to the University of Hong Kong as a research assistant, hoping to continue his academic pursuits afterwards.
But once he learned of the emerging trend of 3D printing during his stay in Hong Kong over the course of 2008, he thought, "This is just what I've been looking for." Jin flew back to Hangzhou, Zhejiang and founded a company with some of his friends in 2009, foraying into an area that few people know about even today.
While most modern folks know about inkjet printing, laser printing and wireless printing, few people know what to imagine when they hear about 3D printing. First of all, it has nothing to do with paper. Bored with the choices for, say, mugs that you find in the store? Design your own cup on your computer and make a 3D print of a unique one via a computer-controlled printer.
Sound crazy? For years now, the 3D printing industry has been working on developing technology that rocks traditional ways that consumers think about manufacturing.
"Think of it as a China on your desktop," a Google executive said a few years ago, referring to the powerful manufacturing capacity of desktop 3D printers.
Hoping to make a fortune
The trend of 3D technology has been all the more shining with the advent of desktop 3D printers since the technology's pioneer Dr Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath initiated his open-source design of a low-cost desktop 3D printer, completing the first RepRap 3D printer in 2007. Bowyer's design has since inspired many enthusiasts to build their own versions of desktop machines, including startup firms in the field like MakerBot Industries and Ultimaker.
The open-sourced inspiration also made an impression on Jin. After going through setbacks offering 3D printing services for big online gaming companies at the initial stage, Jin made bold inroads into manufacturing his own desktop 3D printers in 2011.
Jin's company also started to distribute desktop 3D printers made by 3D Systems Inc, a Rock Hill, South Carolina-based industry heavyweight at the end of 2010. Foreign brands have so far no direct entry into the Chinese market, with many coming to the markets through Chinese distributors.
"It's pretty much the right choice," 30-year-old Jin, now co-founder and chief executive officer of Hangzhou-based Magicfirm LLC, told the Global Times in a phone interview late Wednesday, pointing to his venturing into the hardware making arena.
After about half a year of research and development based on Bowyer's open source, the first batch of the company's self-made desktop 3D printers went on sale at the end of 2011, going for about 12,000 yuan ($1,925) initially and later dropping to around 6,000 yuan.
"We sold about five to six units during December (2011), but this year sales have been very good," according to Jin, who revealed sales of the company's self-branded machines have by now reached more than 400 units, while sales of 3D Systems' products have only registered some 20 units owing to the fact that they are priced five to six times higher than domestically produced machines.
"The figures are well in line with our expectations, and we have set a much higher goal for the upcoming year, around 2,000 to 3,000 units," Jin said, adding that he believes in promising market prospects.
About 70 percent of his company's machines are purchased by domestic consumers in various industries who demand a low-cost machine with which they can 3D print their customized designs, while the rest are exported overseas.
Other early adopters of the technology in the country that hope to strike gold in the field also express bullish sentiments on the market.
"Our domestic sales via taobao.com average 60 sets per month for the time being, while exports to overseas markets account for an even larger portion of our total sales," Chen Zhengzheng, director of the marketing division at Jinhua-based FlashForge Industries, another desktop 3D machine manufacturer in the country, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
While it is currently a niche market, growth momentum is estimated to see tremendous pickup in years to come, Chen said, pointing to rising awareness of the technology among consumers.
"We just began to sell the machines three months ago, and we are confident about our growth outlook in the Chinese market," He Jin, of Xi'an-based Elite Robotics, a distributor of MakerBot machines in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
Heading where exactly?
While cheering over huge growth potential in the market, industry watchers are reluctant to forecast an upcoming desktop 3D printing boom among average users anytime soon.
"The innovation of 3D technology will primarily be in the field of industrial sectors rather than fields related to people's lives," Li Li, client service executive of market research firm GfK Retail and Technology China Co, told the Global Times on Wednesday.
The introduction of 3D printers helps streamline the R&D process and costs for manufacturers, hastening their launch procedures for new products, which would definitely be a lure for making low-quantity personalized products. But 3D printers are less likely to become mainstream applications in the foreseeable future, taking into consideration the high price for average users, as they are still far from mass production, Li remarked, adding that materials used for 3D printers are mostly made of macromolecular ingredients that are rather hard to attain, raising the bar as well.
Even insiders like Chen from FlashForge Industries say the day when the technology reaches common people is still a long way off, hampered by factors such as price and the requirement to design using sophisticated 3D software for average users.
There are even worries that not everyone would be interested in exerting such effort to create small items for fun, especially in today's busy, exhausting society.
In addition to all of these challenges, there looms one worrying possibility that poses a threat to the future of the 3D printing industry as a whole.
If the use of 3D printers, through individuals' desktop machines in particular, becomes a popular trend sometime in the future, this would mean a huge threat for intellectual property rights protection, as a flood of copycat products could easily enter the market with the aid of 3D technology, GfK's Li noted.
For the young entrepreneur Jin, however, this poses some long-term trouble, but collecting more capital for the company's future expansion is more urgent.
"I'm thinking over how to convince the investors who are interested in my company's blueprint that there are far more opportunities than risks in investing in my small business."