China, the country that is the undisputed economic leader of the world, has sent rockets into space and has created high-speed trains, is the same one that has unexpectedly failed to create a seemingly simple product: the humble ballpoint pen.
We are not making this up! Just over a year ago China’s Premier Li Keqiang himself displayed his disappointment on his country’s failure to produce a good quality version of the ballpoint, saying that the local ones felt “rough” as compared to the ones from Germany, Switzerland, and Japan.
The Problem Lies In The Tips
So why is it that £11 trillion economy fails to create a £1 pen? The problem, as it turned out, was not in the body but the tip, which entails the tiny ball dispensing ink as you write. The pen is something we might take for granted, but the tips require very high-precision machinery and utilize very hard and ultra-thin steel plates.
China’s steel has simply not been good enough to create these plates, thus their failure to shape the tips accurately. Consequently, the sprawling giant of a country has had to import the tips, costing them a reported 120m yuan ($17.3m; £14.3m) per year.
Now the state-owned Taiyuan Iron and Steel Co claims to have finally cracked the problem after five years of intensive research. The company will launch the first batch of 2.3-millimetre ballpoint pen tips, and after the tests are complete, the country is expected to phase out the tip imports within two years.
Why The Fascination With The Tips?
An onlooker can rightly wonder why China is so obsessed with something as low value and paltry as a ball point, when their official policy, Made in China 2025 program, revolves around high-tech and innovative manufacturing. But the pen conundrum is more of a symbolic one, which points towards a stark reality that despite producing 50% of the world’s crude iron and steel products, China is still heavily reliant on high-grade steel imports.
This is a stat that highlights China’s failure to upgrade China’s their manufacturing capabilities, a point which Li has been iterating for years.
Destined For Mediocrity:
Professor George Huang, who is the head of the University of Hong Kong’s department of industrial and mechanical engineering spoke on how China has historically not been able to serve high precision products,
“Historically, China has never been able to do precision engineering very well and the ballpoint pen is an example of that. Its parts are so small and very precise, and it’s not easy to solve this problem. Precision engineering is thriving only in certain sectors such as aerospace and defence where the government has placed a high priority.”
Even with smartphones and computers, the minute and high power computer chips are imported from Japan and Taiwan, showing China’s cultural lacking in precision engineering.
Professor uses the Mandarin term “fuzao” for this dilemma, which means something that is not 100% solid or reliable.
“The culture is different from the Japanese and Germans, who are known for innovation in engineering. We Chinese are supposed to be craftsmen, but somehow the spirit is not as good.”
What are your thoughts on China’s inability to create a simple ball point? Comment below!