Ball pens Highlights China’s Manufacturing Weakness

Source: EJ Insight website, Jan 2016

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.

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.

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