Many know that China is the world’s most populous country, with about 1.5 billion people in 2016.
The country’s political strife from the early hereditary dynasties to the current situation is also not a secret.
But few know about the interesting development of industrialization in China, especially in the CNC machining sector.
Is China primed to be the world’s biggest player in CNC machining in the next few decades?
Let’s explore a few facts about the growth of this industry in this amazing country as we try to answer this question!
What is a CNC Machine?
To the uninitiated, a CNC Machine can be described as a machine set of mechanical, hydraulic, electronic, pneumatic, micro-electric and communication set of systems, working in harmony and using high precision, efficiency, flexibility and automation to create complex parts, devices and equipment that were not possible before.
Since the pioneering works of Joseph Marie Jacquard with the mechanical control punch cards, and Herman Hollerith’s card reading technologies in the late 1800s, CNC machining has grown in leaps and bounds.
Hollerith used his Card reading machines to record the 1890 US census, and later started the pre-curser to modern-day IBM, a business that used to sell the cards and the machines.
Which now leads us to the facts about China’s growth in CNC Machining;
1. History has not been Kind to China
China commands about 9.6 million square kilometers, the fourth largest territory in the world, with a collection of 22 provinces, direct-controlled municipalities, special administrative regions, and autonomous territories.
From the ashes of the late 19th Century conflicts and the destitution brought by the great Northern Chinese famine of 1876-79, the Xinhai revolution of 1911-12 established the Republic of China (ROC) under the Koumitang, aka the Nationalist Party.
Then, Chian Kai Shek executed a number of astute political and military maneuvers that galvanized the union of the country under one leadership.
Though the Sino-Japanese war (1937-1946) threatened to destroy what had taken all those years to build, it led to an unlikely and uneasy alliance between the Koumitang and the People’s Liberation army, which again helped unite China against a common enemy, and the People’s Republic of China was born in 1949.
Evidently, there have been many political, economic and military challenges in the country since then.
For example, the ROC never disbanded, and currently occupy Taiwan, which China fiercely protects through diplomatic assertion as part of the one-China Policy.
From the late 70’s, China included scientific research as one of the “Four Modernizations,” a concept that allowed Chinese innovators to enjoy government support in a bid to re-establish the country as a power-house in scientific breakthroughs, agriculture, industry and defense.
China has been escalating its national funding of research and development, up to an estimated $475 billion in 2018. There is a national pride around this, with the term ‘techno-nationalism’ actually being coined in the country.
And there is a reason;
Chinese tech firms are among the fastest rising, with giants like Alibaba, Lenovo, Oppo, Huawei, Xiaomi and OnePlus ruling the telecommunications sector.
For example, China has an Artificial Intelligence Development Plan, which declared AI a priority in development. From 2008 to 2011, the country has grown its use of robotics in factories by a whopping 136%, which is great news for the CNC Machining industry.
2. CNC Machining did not start in China
The Second World War brought with it a lot of motivation to innovate, both from the German and the Allied Forces sides.
Many innovations like the Servo-motors, Ball screw machines, Automatically Programmed tools etc. were invented during the war, but they all needed skilled personnel to operate them.
The US Government would later sponsor a taskforce to create the first machine programming language, which would become the precursor to the CAD systems used today.
The first CNC machine was, however, build by John T. Parsons, in conjunction with MIT. He used all the earlier technologies to create a machine that could reproduce the same results in the production of rotor blades for helicopters and wings for aircraft, and set forth the foundation for CNC milling, turning and 3D printing.
Chinese CNC Machining Industry
Later, in the ‘50s, China developed its first precision machining technologies. This was accomplished by establishing precision machinery research institutes in various regions and training a large number of engineers.
They studied the contemporary methods in the industry, and in the late 70s and early 80s, china had introduced CNC machining for the processing of machine parts, largely importing the technology from the US, Japan and Germany. Because of its abundance of technical and affordable labor, China has gradually invited the outsourcing of the production of high precision parts from the developed countries, and with this, the technology for CNC machining has continually improved over the years.
3. China’s Technological Advancement is not an accident
Many think that the sheer population in China might somehow, through some divine intervention, spontaneously begun and sustained the Chinese revolution to bring all its technological advancements to the maturity we see today.
But few realize how concerted the development has been.
When New China was founded back in 1949, the country had less than 500 researchers in scientific fields, and slightly over 30 research institutions across the country. But national cohesion made many intellectuals working and studying abroad to return to their motherland to contribute to nation building. The country also recruited various kinds of technicians and skilled personnel from the society.
These early efforts have been supported by a very elaborate state-led education system that churns out exactly what the economy needs to carry out the necessary scientific advancements and bring the country to the world-level advanced stage in all fields.
And that is not enough. According to China Daily, China promotes industrial engineering and research through high investments in the field.
By 2008, the country was spending close to 2% of its GDP in science and development. In that year, 7 national engineering research centers and 51 national engineering laboratories were commissioned. At the same time, China boasted 24,300 product inspection laboratories, and close to 5,000 provincial engineering centers, with 575 of those reaching the state-validation level.
China has a sustained 5-Year Development plan culture in which it sets, and then works hard at achieving, targets in the four modernizations mission for its sustainable development agenda in each cycle.
4. Domestic Vs Foreign Automation
Another strategy the country has adopted to ensure that it doesn’t re-invent the wheel is cooperation with market leaders in automation.
When foreign companies were encouraged to invest and outsource from Chinese indigenous companies, the country opened the floodgates of off-shore tasks that were expensive to do in more developed countries.
China was also implementing a gradual increment in salaries and wages in a bid to lift its population out of poverty, and this led to the need to create more efficiency especially in repetitive tasks that could be performed by machines.
Automation was the result, and tasks such as cutting, joining, marking, assembly and sorting were now researched in earnest so that mass production of high precision parts and devices could be realized.
Because of its strong research policy, the country quickly devised or adopted CNC technologies as a result, and grew its profile in these technologies on a global scale.
Though the growth has not been as exponential as in other sectors of industrialization, China’s CNC metal-cutting sector has been growing from the turn of the new millennium, registering about $12 billion in 2013.
Historically, China’s manufacturing industry has been driven by domestically manufactured tooling, but there has been a recent shift in the quest for higher quality products. This has made the clamor for higher end production methods and equipment even more intense.
The market is fairly concentrated to the top 10 suppliers who are supplying approximately 44% of all the equipment by revenue. It is clear that there is a huge gap between foreign and domestic supplier products, but Chinese companies include Dalian Machine Tool, Shenyang Machine, Ningbo Haitian Precision Machinery, Qinchuan Machine Tool & Tool, JIER Machine-Tool among others.
China has chosen to open this sector to foreign involvement through partnerships and encouraging investment in the country. The majority of customers currently have low requirements that can be satisfied by domestic production, but there is demand for higher-end CNC machining centers, grinders and lathes.
Marking and Engraving Technologies
In close imitation to the entire science and research landscape in the country, the marking technologies were largely imported, but the Chinese manufacturers are gradually upping their game and making their own high precision marking and engraving equipment.
Laser Marking Machines
The world’s laser marking machine market share is dominated by Fiber Lasers, which command 44% of the total laser marking equipment.
Other upcoming companies include HeatSign, DEK Tooling, XTLaser, and many others.
CO2 Marking Machines
CO2 laser marking machines are usually sealed-tube laser marking systems with galvo-steered beams designed for marking non-metal surfaces like wood, glass, quartz, and ceramics.
The Chinese manufacturers have quickly risen to dominate the market due to their capability to tame costs while at the same time manufacturing the same quality as compared to more mature market leaders in the US, Europe and Japan.
Companies like HeatSign and XTLaser have specialized in marking technologies, differentiating themselves from the mainstream CNC Heavy industry like Lathe manufacture, and thus enabling them to innovate in non-traditional CNC applications like artistic décor, part marking and traceability, which are crucial and have potential for exponential growth.
Dot Pin Laser Marking Machines
Dot pin (dot peen) marking is the use of carbide or diamond stylus assembly to electromechanically strike and engrave a predefined design or text on a surface by use of a succession of dots.
The machines achieve 2D marking, with X and Y axes that place dots exactly as programmed and creating high quality markings for parts.
Chinese manufacturers have perfected the mass production of dot peen marking machines, offering a flexible array of machines by size, including portable, hand held or integrated models.
5. The Global Market Overview
According to Research and Market, China is the world’s manufacturer and consumer of CNC machine tools. It managed the CNC machine tool output value of over $6 billion in 2018, which is slightly more than 10% share of the global figure.
The country still heavily depends on imported machines and technologies, with the localization level at 20%, indicating a huge potential for research and development in the sector.
The world’s top 5 producers of CNC machines control nearly 60% of the entire business. And none of them is in China, which highlights the work that still needs to be done to bring the Chinese industry at par with the world.
The world leaders include Fanuc Corporation, which operates from Japan.
The company focuses CNC machine tools, Robotics and IoT based systems.
The second largest is Haas Automation, an American company based in Oxnard, California.
The CNC machining industry is relatively young in China, but there is a massive opportunity for growth. This is because this industry is very diverse, encompassing the cutting, marking and engraving technologies, and other automated factory machining processes over a wide variety of industries.
The political and economic landscape that the country enjoys allows for a very enabling environment for growth in the industry, and the availability of affordable labor allows foreign investors and researchers to set base in the country, further boosting the capability for growth.
The CNC Marking, cutting and engraving technologies are among the fastest growing in the sector, and Chinese companies are finding niche sectors and markets to supply CNC machining.
While the country does not claim to be the original source of machining technologies, there is high optimism that all these factors will lead to a vibrant industry where the country is either doing outsourced processing, or its companies are developing their indigenous companies to compete at the global market.