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What 3-D Printing Could Mean for the World's Factory -- China

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Visitors look at products made by 3-D printers displayed in the Stratasys Ltd. both at the 3D & Virtual Reality Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan, on June 21, 2013. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
Visitors look at products made by 3-D printers displayed in the Stratasys Ltd. both at the 3D & Virtual Reality Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan, on June 21, 2013. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

It's easy to get caught up in the buzz around 3-D printing. It allows everyone from hobbyists to aerospace engineers to create customized products -- toys, prosthetics , even jet engine parts -- from the convenience of their home or office.

And while "disruption" is an overused word in the tech world, it's hard not to wonder how 3-D printing might affect global manufacturing and the country in the middle of it all: China.

Of course, not everyone is sold on the big promise of 3-D printers, which build objects by laying down thin layers of molten plastic, one on top of the next. In June, the South China Morning Post reported that billionaire Terry Gou called the printing technology "a gimmick ." You might expect that from the founder of the world's largest contract manufacturer of electronics, the Foxconn Technology Group's Hon Hai Precision Industry, which has huge factories in China. The company didn't respond to a request for comment.

To get another view of the potential impact on China, I caught up last week with 3-D printing pioneer Scott Crump, who's the co-founder and chairman of Stratasys. While the company takes issue with Gou's description of the technology, Crump doesn't see China's enormous manufacturing business being adversely affected by 3-D printing, at least for now.

Crump, who invented the technology known as fused deposition modeling, said there's a big movement in the U.S. and elsewhere to bring some manufacturing home with the help of 3-D printing.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that the mass manufacturing in China or Taiwan or Korea is going to go away," he said during an interview at the Inside 3D Printing Conference in San Jose, California. "I think the pie is getting bigger."

The main draw of 3-D printing is to build custom or low-volume items that aren't being mass manufactured, Crump said.

"With 3-D printing, we're expanding in the niches that aren't covered," he said. "This concept of bringing the manufacturing back local is a disruptor, but I don't think it's a disruptor where it necessarily reduces the total build in places like China."

Stratasys, which has dual headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and Rehovot, Israel, has reasons to be optimistic about the Chinese market. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for about a quarter of the company's sales, and China has grown quickly to account for a big chunk of that, the company said. Stratasys had revenues of $359 million in 2012.

However, China "can be a substantial competitor," said Crump, who recalled a recent visit to Shanghai where he discussed the 3-D printing business with a government official.

"You could see in the meeting they really wanted to work with us; they needed our help," he said. But in the end, they "just want to compete with you."