China: The giant manufacturer learned to produce small pen tips

The production capacity of the Chinese has always been beyond doubt. For millennia (literally,) the Chinese have been able to invent, copy and improve all kinds of inventions to this day. From watches and cell phones to satellites and military drones, the Chinese have been able to take over the world market to such an extent that it is quite difficult to find items produced elsewhere than in China (do yourself such inspection exercise and you’ll see what I mean.) However, what is most striking of all this is that, unlike other great copyists, such as Japan (in the best sense of the term, of course,) until very recently, China had been unable to produce something so basic and necessary such as pen tips. Yes: those tiny spheres that allow pens to travel on the paper, applying ink to make writing, drawing, mathematical operations and many more daily tasks possible.

The numbers are really disconcerting. The great Asian dragon used to spend an average of sixteen billion dollars on importing these steel balls that, once the ink is finished, usually end up in the garbage of any country in the world (or in desk drawers for years.) This seemed almost a problem of national economy, rather than an industrial pride issue. The truth is that even though they are so small and their insignificant aspect makes them go unnoticed in our daily life, the pen tips are not made as easy as pins or nuts. Actually, it takes a complex technology to make decent pens (yes, those we all hate that someone forgets to give back or even steal on purpose all the time!)

Another problem that prevented this supply chain achievement was intellectual property (a headache for world industry, in general, so to speak.) The Chinese not only failed to manufacture adequate pen tips due to their technological limitations (something that goes back to the technological precariousness derived from the Chinese Revolution,) but that the tiny spheres of steel, as well as the machines to produce them, are patented.

Of course, China is not innovating when it comes to pens production. This country is one of the largest pens manufacturers in the world (today, there are more than 3,000 pens production factories in China,) but until they discovered how to make the tips properly, the quality of Chinese pens so far was simply a disaster. The spheres were too thick, they used to stuck, and they did not allow a fluid passage from ink to paper (among other problems.) Therefore, the Chinese chose to import this small part of this basic instrument, in order to complete their supply chains.

Read also: 2017, supply chain and technology, by David Kiger

How did they do it? A North China company, Taiyuan Iron & Steel, after five years of hard research, experimentation and testing, was able to make the needed precise cuts on thin sheets of steel. The quaint thing about this whole business (and yet, this is perfectly understandable,) is that China celebrated this technological and industrial achievement with the same enthusiasm with which they might have celebrated, let’s say, the invention of the time machine.

Nevertheless, thanks to this achievement, China is industrially emancipated from the Japanese dependence (their economic and political rivals since World War 2.) Now, China is able to produce high-quality pens, able to write continuously for a little over half a mile. In fact, they already started to leave production lines in June of last year.

pen
Image courtesy of James Almond at Flickr.com

Another curious point is that at this precise moment in history, in which technological improvements have led us to use paper less and less as a means of transmitting information, the Chinese have achieved this goal that many consider they should have achieved long ago. The irony, precisely, is that the Chinese have long been major producers of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices, with which we normally communicate, write, project and print every day.

However, we must not forget the ancestral relationship that the society of this country has had with calligraphy. According to anthropologists, historians, and other specialists, Chinese culture has found in the writing of Chinese characters as one of its main axes. Philosophy, arts, mathematics, etc., they would not have developed in the way they did if there had not been Chinese calligraphy (one of the oldest in the world, by the way.)

Calligraphy (especially traditional Chinese characters) is still taught with special emphasis on schools, and even many people practice it as an artistic expression:

VIDEO: Chinese ‘Sidewalk Water Calligraphy’

Most likely, surely most of the new Chinese pens buyers have access to the Internet and write everything they need thanks to new technologies, but the possibility of keep writing on the paper is a cultural aspect that the technical obstacles of China’s industry will never be able to restrict anymore.

Recommended: Powering China’s Supply Chain: Challenges and Opportunities

* Featured Image courtesy of ILO in Asia and the Pacific at Flickr.com

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