A Chinese steel firm has made an unlikely breakthrough in the country famous for replicating just about every technology as soon as it hits the market.
After five years of research and development, Taiyuan Iron & Steel has produced a ballpoint pen. Specifically, the tip of a ballpoint pen.
Extraordinary as it sounds, it’s a first for a company in the country which manufactures nearly 40 billion ballpoint pens every year.
It’s also a point of much pride in China. Around this time last year, many Chinese were unaware of their country’s inability to create such a common item.
It became headline news when Premier Li Keqiang complained about it on national TV. The “world’s factory”, which churns out smartphones, stealth fighters and WeChat, couldn’t manufacture a tiny metal ball.
The problem was two-fold. China simply didn’t have a machine with the precision to cut a tiny ball-bearing accurately. While it supplied the world with 80% of its ballpoint pens, all the balls came from Switzerland.
The steel, according to Xinhua, must be “easy to cut but not liable to crack”.
It also doesn’t produce steel of high enough quality to make the casing that surrounds the ball. It all comes from Germany or Japan.
China currently spends about $17 million a year on Japanese steel for ballpoint pens alone.
Compounding the fact is the process and formula for a steel ball that can write continuously for 800 metres is considered a trade secret.
Li has actually been making noises about it for several years. In June 2015, Chinese state-run broadcaster CCTV even hosted three manufacturing CEOs in an hour-long talk show about what the country could do about it.
Facing them was the CEO of penmaker Beifa Group, Qiu Zhiming.
One of the three CEOs, Dong Mingzhu, make a great show of anger at profits going to Swiss companies and promised Qiu her air conditioning company Ge li would build him a machine within a year “and sell it to you for half the price”.
Qiu nervously thanked Dong for her offer.
And Li stayed on point. In December 2015, at a seminar in Beijing, he made sure everyone knew Chinese pens felt “rough”.
On January 21, 2016, the Hong Kong Economic Journal declared:
“The day China can produce a 100 percent homemade ball pen will be the day it truly qualifies as a first-class industrial power.”
Yesterday, Taiyuan Iron and Steel announced it had cracked it. In June last year, to be exact.
But Qiu’s company, Beifa, has just ordered the first batch of Chinese-made pen tips.
Result – national pride restored:
China has developed its own ballpoint pen tips, ending a long-term reliance on imported ones pic.twitter.com/0A51NzIPOe
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 11, 2017
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