Stratasys, the New York-listed supplier of industrial-grade three-dimensional printers, plans to expand its operations in the mainland to meet demand and support Beijing's efforts to develop advanced manufacturing capabilities.
Scott Crump, the chairman and chief innovation officer at Stratasys, said that China, including Hong Kong, was already the company's fastest-growing market because of its manufacturing industry.
He said the company, which has offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong, was keen to open a new office in Beijing and would consider setting up a research and development centre in the mainland.
"From an industry standpoint, the odds are pretty good that China will become the second-largest market for 3-D printers after the US within five years," Crump told the South China Morning Post. He said the market made up 5 to 10 per cent of Stratasys' business each quarter.
3-D printing allows physical objects to be printed in much the same way an inkjet printer creates images on paper. Manufacturers use 3-D printers to create product designs and prototypes, as well as finished goods in low volume, using molten plastic and other materials.
Management consulting firm McKinsey said 3-D printing belongs to a class of techniques called "additive manufacturing", in which objects are built in a layer-by-layer process, in contrast to moulding or machining. A major 3-D printing technology, known as fused deposition modelling, was invented by Crump, who co-founded Stratasys in 1988.
In meetings last month with government officials in Beijing, Crump said Stratasys discussed potential collaboration with the mainland on initiatives to spur the adoption and development of 3-D printing.
"We want not only to expand our business, but to do some development or co-development in China. We're also interested in teaching industrial and business applications," Crump said.
Stratasys, with global revenue of US$359 million last year, is present in China's automotive, aerospace, medical, dental, jewellery, consumer electronics packaging and education sectors.
Reports last month said the central government had pledged to invest 1.5 billion yuan (HK$1.9 billion) in a seven-year programme to become a global leader in 3-D printing. The Beijing-based Asian Manufacturing Association projected the 3-D printing market on the mainland would reach 10 billion yuan by 2016.
The head of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer, played down the value of 3-D printing last month.
Terry Gou Tai-ming, the founder and chairman of Hon Hai, also known as Foxconn Technology Group, said: "3-D printing is a gimmick. If it is really that good, then I'll write my surname 'Gou' backwards [from now on]."
Crump said 3-D printing was "neither a gimmick nor a fad", adding that interest in the technology and its adoption have risen over the past two years.
He said 3-D printing was widely used to create mechanical and cast parts for airline cabin fixtures; tooling for car assembly lines; and bone implants and surgical guides.
Wohlers Associates, a 3-D printing research firm, forecast the global 3-D printer market to be worth US$6 billion by 2017. It grew 29 per cent to US$2.2 billion last year.