There’s no denying that 3D printing is both an awesome and innovative technology. In fact, it’s ever-increasing potential may someday make it the leading manufacturing technique in the world. The current market for 3D printing technology is boundless as far as borders go, it can be found from Asia to Africa and everywhere in between. Though the emerging technology can be found in almost any region, few countries seem to have conquered the market like China has.

When you consider the amount of 3D printing companies and startups that have arisen out China over the past few years, you might assume that every industrial factory would have at least a 3D printer or two. Surprisingly enough, during a trip to Shenzhen, China, we discovered that 3D printing technology may not be as plentiful as we first suspected. Upon arriving, the team expected to see manufacturing factories filled with 3D printers prototyping and producing the night away. Although these manufacturing facilities were exceptionally impressive as a whole, it was clear that the traditional plastic extrusion methods had not yet been replaced by FDM 3D printing.

There were a fair amount of 3D printers in accelerators like HAX and Legend Star, as well as Shenzhen-based Fablabs like Chaihuo, but use of FDM 3D printing seemed to start and end at these establishments.

Instead, these factories remained fixated on traditional plastic extrusion, a method that is widely used across the massive country. Though this process is decisively slower and more expensive than FDM 3D printing, it does not seem like China is in any rush to replace it with this more “innovative” technology. To gain a better understanding of why FDM 3D printing is seeing a slower adaptation in China than expected, we talked to Shenzhen resident Naomi Wu about the lack of FDM 3D printer utilization.

There is a tremendous focus on promoting “innovation” as an abstract concept but most of us know very little about the creative process. So there is a tendency to build what we think a creative environment should look like in the hope that it somehow naturally evolves in that space. As a result many 3D printers here in Shenzhen end up getting used as sort of decorative totems as startups and accelerators- “See, we're innovative. We've got a 3D printer”. Shenzhen has not yet incorporated FDM on a large scale into our hardware design workflow.

The main reason for this seem to revolve around the exceptionally high volume that these factories produce at, making traditional plastic extrusion advantageous to 3D printing technology. Without the proper promotion of creativity, there isn’t much of a foundation for 3D printing technology to stand upon. Additionally, these plastic manufacturing plants are already filled with functional ecosystems and equipment, making the adaptation of 3D printing more unnecessary than one might expect.

This dilemma extends well past China, many Western countries have also utilized FDM 3D printing technology much less than expected. Overall, the solution to this absence of 3D printing innovation seems to rest in the need for CAD software education. If young students and even the adult workforce are taught how to maximize the use of 3D printing technology, much more creative uses are sure to arise.