Artefacts that just ain't relics: 3D printing all the rage in China
The small, ornate figurines look like relics of a bygone age: a serene Buddha's head from the Tang dynasty, or a collection of stone-faced soldiers from the Qin era.
The creation process, however, is decidedly modern. In northwest Shaanxi province's capital of Xian, home to such historic sites as the clay Terracotta Army and the 1000-year-old Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a small studio and factory uses 3D printing technology to replicate ancient art.
"All the intricate details of the original design are preserved in a 3D mould," said Xi Xin, the president of the Xian Chizi Digital Technology company.
"Humans may not be able to produce everything we want in the design, but the printer can do it all." The firm, the products of which are sold at museum shops and to personal collectors, is among the businesses taking advantage of China's foray into 3D printing - a rapidly growing industry.
The scale of China's 3D printing industry has surpassed those of Europe and the USLuo Jun
"In the past five years 3D printing in China has grown from a one billion yuan ($149 million) industry to a more than 100 billion yuan ($14.9 billion) industry," said Luo Jun, the head of the China 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance.
3D printing came to China in the 1990s, Luo said, after Tsinghua University and Huazhong University of Science and Technology professors brought the technology back from the US.
The Chinese State Council's "Made in China 2025" industrial development plan lists the promotion of "new breakthroughs in 3D printing" as a priority for growth into the next decade and the Ministry of Science and Technology counts 3D printing among its 13 priority projects for technological innovation.
"Now the scale of China's 3D printing industry has surpassed those of Europe and the US," Luo said.
The Xian Chizi Digital Technology company has developed its 3D design technology in the past 10 years, using a stereolithography machine to print carefully constructed digital replicas of historic artefacts. The design process can take between one to three months, while printing requires up to several weeks of time for the more elaborate pieces.
Once the prototype is complete, it will be mass-produced in a factory using the same material - usually wood or copper - as the relic it was modelled on.
Xi's company also makes 3D printed moulds for sculptors who use them as models for their own handcrafted artworks.
The final products are popular among the tourists who flock to Xian, known as the oldest of China's four great imperial capitals.
The figurines are sold at the mausoleum for Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor, and his Terracotta Warriors. There, at the burial place dating back to 200BC, visitors can hold the 3D "artefacts" of China's future in the palm of their hands.
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