In the past, why did China face ridicule for its inability to manufacture ballpoint pen tips, and why is it still considered a difficult task for only three countries, one of which is China, to achieve commercial viability in producing them?
David J Wong
Yup, China could send satellites to space, develop nuclear weapons and create the longest high-speed rail network in the world, but until 2017, apparently couldn’t make ballpoints for ballpoint pens. Only Japan and a handful of European countries mastered it.
This was due to the advanced metallurgical expertise needed to make sufficiently fine steel for the ballpoints. So for the longest time, Chinese factories relied on imported ballpoints to manufacture pens.
I believe the background to this can be traced back to 2015 when then Premier commented how his writing was “rough” when he used Chinese-made ballpoint pens. For Li, China's failure to manufacture a complete ballpoint pen was an indication of the Chinese economy's weaknesses.
His comments caused an uproar in China's pen industry — which (understandably) was not used to being the topic of mainstream political conversation. These pen companies had been happy to manufacture crappy pens. Now they were being told that they had to do more.
Li's comments did spark action, however, and by 2017, China could make entirely domestically-produced ballpoints.
I guess it was a source for ridicule because mighty China, the factory of the world, couldn’t make something as “simple” as the ballpoints that go into a humble ballpoint pen— never mind that there is a level of precision required to make the ballpoints and today only Japan, Switzerland and China can do it.
I look at the 100% Chinese ballpoint pen as an example of Chinese innovation and determination, and in recent years, China has caught up to other industrialized nations when it comes to technological advances (something to note in the current chip war).
Today, China is the largest producer of ballpoint pens in the world, with its 40 billion (yes, that’s a ‘b’) pens annually amounting to ~80% of global output.
China - World Leader.
This is the story of not just the humble ballpoint pen. But also a thing called the hand-torn steel.
China did not just face ridicule but was purposely held back and had to pay a heavy premium . . . until they finally learned on their own how to make the ballpoint pen.
Premier had long lamented that China produced more than half the world’s steel but still had to import high grade metal to make decent pens. And making decent All-Chinese pens did not hapen until 2017!!!
This was the problem: China could not make the high-grade steel and precision machinery required to make the key component of the pens – the metal ball and its casing, only European countries and Japan could do this, reflecting how China was still behind in high-end manufacutring. Like in so many advanced fields, its a monopoly technology that the U.S., Europe and Japan had deliberately kept China.from acquiring.
But a Chinese team finally cracked the code in 2017 after 711 tries.
And in 2019, China did one better, they’re now the only country in the world to be able to produce in commerical scale hand-torn stell at a thickess of from 0.02 mm to 0.015 mm (about a third of the thickness of a human hair).
The cost differential? The price of a ton of conventional sheet steel is 20,000 yuan (about US$2,800); for 0.015mm thickness stainless steel, 2 million yuan (about US$280,000) or a multiple of 100.
It’s utility? It’s used by Huawei foldable smartphones as well as essential components in a broad range of vital industries such as aerospace (combustion chambers, turbine discs and seals for jet engines), military (weapons and equipment such as missiles and firearms), automobiles (engines, chasis and car bodies), and new energy (solar panels and lithium ion batteries.
The table is now turned. China has just announced its ban of sales of hand torn steel to the U.S. and Europe,.
Of course, China continues to be the world’s largest producer of ballpoint pens - about 80% at 40 billions annually.
Siva Sai Vinnakota
Hey there, great question! Let's dive into the fascinating world of ballpoint pen tips and China's journey in manufacturing them. Back in the day, China faced some ridicule because it struggled to produce high-quality ballpoint pen tips. The ridicule mainly stemmed from the fact that China was known for its manufacturing prowess, and yet something as seemingly simple as pen tips became a challenge. It was a bit like a star athlete stumbling during warm-up exercises. People expected China to ace it, but there were hiccups.
Now, as for why it's still considered a tough nut to crack, well, manufacturing these tiny tips is a lot more complex than it appears. You see, a ballpoint pen tip needs to have a precise diameter, be sturdy enough not to break while writing, and yet smooth enough to provide a frictionless writing experience. Achieving this balance is no easy feat, and it requires advanced metallurgical techniques, which only a handful of countries have mastered. China has come a long way since those early struggles and is one of the few nations that can produce them at scale. But the competition is fierce, and maintaining consistent quality while kee production costs low remains a challenge. It's like trying to balance on a tightrope in a storm; you're doing well if you stay on, but it's precarious!
So, China's journey with ballpoint pen tips is a tale of perseverance and progress, and it's proof that even in manufacturing, the devil is in the details.
It's quite amusing to see some of the other answers .
Due to the small market size of ballpoint pen tips, despite the lack of technological difficulty, it's simply not profitable, and capital has no interest in entering this industry. Exsting foreign manufacturers can safely profit from this industry in a globalized context.
But there are always those who fabricate stories about China's inability to produce such items. As a result, In response to a political assignment, a Chinese iron company produced a batch of steel and used it to manufacture ballpoint pen tips, which could supply the entire world for decades. and the supply chain undergoes a reshuffling.
I've also seen similar propaganda regarding items like lighter flints, artificial blood vessels, and so on.
This is now seen as a joke in China. This is a foreign myth advocated by public opinion agitators supported by countries those are hostile to China, and it has now been shattered, and it is very unsightly.
I have talked to people in the Chinese steel industry about this before, and they all laughed happily. At that time, this matter was assigned to a state-owned steel plant for smelting, but it made the operators of this steel plant very difficult because the quantity of this material was too small. The blast furnaces of domestic steel enterprises in China start with hundreds of tons, and it is not surprising that blast furnaces with a daily output of tens of thousands of tons of molten steel. Finally, the steel plant found the smallest blast furnace they could find and produced a furnace of this type of steel. However, the smallest blast furnace, producing 60 tons of this steel in this furnace.
Everyone knows how big a ball of ball-pen is, so how many balls of ball-pen can be produced from this 60 tons? I'm too lazy to calculate. Let's talk about the impact of the steel produced this time: within two years, half of the foreign steel companies producing this type of steel had to quit, and the remaining half formed a consortium to sue this Chinese steel factory for dum at the WTO.
In fact, the explanation for this matter is very simple: the market demand for this type of steel itself is very small, and the production capacity of some home workshop kind steel enterprises can meet the market needs. I admit that some steel companies can indeed produce such high-quality steel, but after all, there is no significant quality gap. The remarks of those instigators did indeed affect China's top management, causing them to order astate-owned enterprise to conduct a small "experiment", but the result of this small experiment is a thorough reshuffle of the market pattern in this field. This provocative propaganda was ultimately paid for by innocent small businesses who could have quietly made money.