Premier Li Keqiang recently made a shocking revelation about the industrial capabilities of China on national television: despite the fact that the country is widely known as the “world’s factory” and produces everything from iPhones, aircraft carriers, high-speed railways to spacecraft, until now there is not a single manufacturer in China that is able to produce the tiny rotating ball fitted to the tip of a ball pen that disperses ink as you write.
Each of these tiny metal balls has to be imported by Chinese pen manufacturers from overseas suppliers.
Many TV viewers in the mainland were deeply shocked and saddened by this revelation, as they had all been under the impression that China is already a world-class industrial power.
The harsh fact is that, even though China produces 38 billion ball pens every year, it is still unable to manufacture the key component, the rotating ball point.
How could a tiny component of an object so commonplace that goes for less than one US dollar prove to be an insuperable hurdle for the entire Chinese industrial complex?
Qiu Zhiming, chief executive of Beifa Group Co. Ltd., China’s leading stationery manufacturer, said the reason it is so difficult to produce that component is that the ball — which is usually made of brass, steel or tungsten carbide and kept in place by a socket at the tip of the ball pen — is so tiny (usually not more than 0.1 millimeter in diameter) that it requires state-of-the-art machinery and cutting-edge computerized measurement equipment with pinpoint precision to produce, not to mention the ability to produce the high-quality steel material of which it is made. The margin for inaccuracy in the production process of this tiny ball point is basically zero, or else it won’t be able to be fitted into the socket perfectly and rotate freely in order to deliver ink.
Unfortunately, all these key technologies remain the weakest links in China’s manufacturing industry even to this day.
As a result, all the rotating metal balls fitted to made-in-China ball pens have to be imported from Germany, Switzerland or Japan.
The root cause of China’s backwardness in some of the key industrial technologies lies in the fact that state-run and private manufacturers are unwilling to invest in research and development because, in most cases, it won’t bring profits and extra market share, owing to the lack of protection for intellectual property and rampant plagiarism by other competitors.
Besides, the overall quality and professionalism of technicians in China’s manufacturing industry still lag far behind those in other major industrial countries.
Even if you have the best machinery, you still can’t roll out the best products if you don’t have the best people to operate it.
There is also the problem of China’s inability to produce the best kind of steel materials.
Today the country still relies heavily on specially made and high-quality steel alloy imported from Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States to build its high-speed railways, bridges and even aircraft carriers and submarines.
The State Council launched a RMB$60 million program four years ago to facilitate the research and development of strategic industrial materials such as high-quality steel so as to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign imports, because it is not only an industrial issue but also a national security concern.
However, four years have passed, and the program seems to have achieved nothing.
The reason Premier Li raised the issue even at the risk of “hurting Chinese people’s feelings” is apparent: as China is undergoing a downturn in economic growth, his words serve as a timely reminder for manufacturers that they should have a sense of crisis, and unless they are able to achieve technological breakthroughs and step up investment in high value-added production rather than continuing to play safe and rely on labor-intensive manufacturing, it won’t be long before the country completely loses its growth momentum.
The day China can produce a 100 percent homemade ball pen will be the day it truly qualifies as a first-class industrial power.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 21.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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January 27, 2016 at 8:59 am
The person writing this article is confused. I ran the plant making billions of ball point pen balls in the United States until 2002. These balls are made from Tungsten Carbide. Stainless steel balls make very bad pens and have been made in China for a long time. By 2000 The Chinese governement lead an effort to corner the Tungsten Carbide market for all types of tungsten carbide. They funded the effort to make pen balls as well to support the tungsten carbide powder business. By 2002 the major US pen producers at moved over to Chinese balls to make the low end cheap pens. These are the ones you buy in Staples for $2.00 for 12. We lost all of this business in the US and in Europe by 2002.
There is a high end pen. The good gel ink or roller ball pens. These demand better quality tungsten carbide and better quality surface finishes. These balls are harder to make and are made in Japan primarily. We made them in the US but our parent company made them in Japan so we closed down most US pen operations and closed my plant.
The hard part of the process is in fact making the tip. The tip is a techological marvel. To my knowledge in 2002 there were very few tip makers in China. The tips were being made in Switzerland and the Swiss had factories in Malaysia to service China. The ball is inserted in the tip at time of manufacture and is sold with the tip. The tip uses excellent stainless and is held to very tight tolerances and is made very very quickly. The Swiss have been using Chinese balls in tips for years.
January 24, 2016 at 7:36 am
This seems very odd. We had reliable BIC pens in the west for about 50 years. That was way before the "state of the art" & computerized technology the writer says is necessary to produce a pen.
January 25, 2016 at 7:23 am
The technology of how to build a perfect ball has been around for a long time. It has it's genesis in the race to replace the fountain pen, there was a lot of money on the table (think- schools). So a few talented machinists and die makers set about to make it so. Bic won the contest after a lot of R & D, and demanding higher grade steel from suppliers.
Biro still makes those balls, because business men are not interested in anything that isn't pure profit, and there will be no higher grade steel because upgrading blast furnaces is expensive.
February 4, 2016 at 3:07 pm
...which further reinforces the point.
Vince Viknesh J'eg Pillay:
January 30, 2016 at 9:35 am
I don't think China is a world-class industrial powerhouse when manufacturing is concerned. Many of it's factories still consist of assembly lines where compenent parts are imported from various other countries and are assembled in the factory before exporting out again.
China is infamous for copying products and technology and lacks the critical ablity and willpower to innovate. It also lacks critical minds to think out of the box, having a typical East Asian (or I daresay, Chinese) education system of reading off books, memorising, and dumping it into exams papers. China is definitely no where near Germany, Japan and the US. I don't doubt that it will get there, just not any time soon.
January 25, 2016 at 12:15 pm
So there's no margin of error for a ballpoint tip, but there is for the filaments of a 10nm GPU that goes inside a tiny motherboard inside our TVs... totally legit.
David H Dennis:
January 27, 2016 at 6:09 pm
Interesting that my new Apple Pencil for iPad Pro was made in China. So I guess as writing technologies evolve, our advantage may go away for completely different reasons ...
What does make me a little surprised is that Foxconn makes very high precision products for Apple. The tolerences on iPhones and Macintoshes are very tight. But that's a private factory, not state-run, and perhaps that makes all the difference you would expect.
Alan Lee Kwan Shing:
January 25, 2016 at 9:42 am
The article might be a bit exaggering, so is Premier Li, who might have said so only to raise concern. But it is really true that the overwhelming majority of Chinese manufacturers relies on exporting low-end products. And the frenzy for short-term profits and communist bureaucracy are definitly standing in the way of innovation.
January 27, 2016 at 5:15 am
This is a good article and reflects the problems with Chinese manufacturing and IP protection.
One small point, China has not produced an aircraft carrier yet. The Liaoning was bought from the Ukraine. They have one being built now, but it has not been launched.
February 2, 2016 at 7:43 am
this is incorrect, China is close to completing another aircraft carrier, besides, carrier are not even hard to produce, it has been 70 years since carrier were invented. carrier do not measure technology, only industrial scale needed to support it. even my country of Singapore is considering building a carrier on our own, carrier are comparatively easier to build then the fighter that operates on them.
China's space program has demostrated China is one of the leading power in complex technology. already China has achieved a higher reliability rate for her rocket than the US with fewer losses. of course part of the problem with US is political lobbying and not technology, however it demostrate China isn't the only country that has problems.
January 27, 2016 at 6:28 pm
The Chicoms with the full cooperation of Clinton Crime Syndicate are an economic mirage just like modern "Progressivism".
Socialism is the message, Marxism is the strategy and Fascism is the goal...
Democrats lost America's first Civil War because they enslaved Black people. Democrats are going to lose America's second Civil War because they attempted to enslave everyone else...
January 28, 2016 at 11:08 pm
Either you are a Poe or a moron. I'm betting on the latter.
January 27, 2016 at 7:13 am
It is rather misleading to say that "China produces iPhones" as a contrast to this ballpoint pen situation. Some of the complicated and high value-add iPhone components - such as some of the chips - are produced elsewhere and then assembled in China.
January 27, 2016 at 11:46 am
It is often the case that in order to graduate to a higher technology you must first master the lesser ones.This make me wonder if the whole Chinese ball bearing industry is up to snuff.
January 25, 2016 at 6:18 pm
The modern ballpoint pen originated in 1940s Argentina, which is hardly a technological juggernaut that China could look up to.
January 26, 2016 at 3:52 am
Slightly off topic but if you have Chinese friends talk to them about fountain pens. Decades after North American and European students abandoned them Chinese students laboured on. Lots of funny stories about running out of ink, leaking pens, bad ink, etc.
January 27, 2016 at 8:12 pm
Worse, China cannot produce world class turbine engines for airplanes. If you cannot make good ball point pens, you cannot make the kind of bearings that you need for jet turbines. Now of course China does make jet engines. But I have never seen any good comparisons of their time-to-overhaul and mean time to failure. This is critical when operating airlines over long oceanic routes. Should one engine fail, what are the odds that the only remaining engine will also fail before reaching a suitable airport?
January 28, 2016 at 8:09 am
True, they have produced a jet turbine engine known as WS-10 for jet fighters, but it is unreliable and problem-ridden, and even the PLA themselves prefer the Russian made engines to their own ones. It might take a couple of years before the WS-10 becomes truly operational. Worse still, even if it works well, the WS-10 is only 80's technology.
January 28, 2016 at 5:12 am
China is only an assembly country,not innovation, so right now they have to change the altitude or else will be left behind producing garbage nobody in the World wanted. Corruption is so deep rooted with the government officials that fund allocated for research had gone missing.
Iqbal Dermawan Siregar:
January 31, 2016 at 8:16 am
it's true.. but may they have reverse engineering?
January 24, 2016 at 8:49 pm
Just what I was going to say. I remember "Biros' from the 1950s in England! You could smell the 'grease' (ink)!
January 27, 2016 at 5:30 am
The ball point pen dates to about 1950. You need state of the art technology to manufacture a 1950's pen?
February 4, 2016 at 3:04 pm
I'm surprised that the PRCs are 'deeply shocked' by this revelation, considering how even they try to avoid made in china whenever possible.
January 27, 2016 at 12:34 pm
Not sure how much exaggeration there is in this article.
January 27, 2016 at 4:28 pm
Is this a joke?