China, the world's biggest manufacturer of ballpoint pens, has finally developed its own pen tips, ending a long-term reliance on imported ones.
Taiyuan Iron & Steel (Group), or TISCO, said it has mastered the production of steel components for pen tips after trying for five years.
The company told Xinhua Tuesday that China-made tips were ready for mass production and were expected to replace imports in the years to come,
Stationery manufacturers in China produce 38 billion ballpoint pens every year, but make less than 0.1 yuan on each pen, despite spending millions of dollars importing steel used to make the pen tips, at 120,000 yuan (US$17,000) per ton.
"The stainless steel used to make pen tips was all imported from Japan," said Xu Jundao, manager of Beifa Group, one of China's largest pen makers.
Though making a ballpoint pen may seem straightforward, producing a tiny tip with fluent writing effects requires over 20 processes. With machine precision down to the nearest micrometer, requirements for the quality of steel are high as it should be easy to cut but not liable to crack.
TISCO joined a national initiative to develop domestic ballpoint pen tips to move the industry up the value chain in 2011, but the R&D proved difficult.
Wang Huimian, a senior engineer at TISCO, told Xinhua that the toughest part of the work was finding the right formula.
Special microelements must be added to liquid steel to make a quality tip that is able to write continually for at least 800 meters, but the formula had long been kept a trade secret by foreign manufacturers, leaving imports the only option for Chinese pen makers.
Wang's team conducted numerous experiments to accumuluate data, adjusting parameters to find the formula.
"We finally made a breakthrough at the end of 2014. Instead of using lumpy additives, their usual shape, we tried to cut them into smaller, linear pieces to get a better chemical interaction to make the steel stronger," Wang said.
In June last year, the first Made-in-China ballpoint pen tips were produced.
"The pen tips were wear-proof with excellent writing effects and can completely be substituted for imported ones," said Hu Shengyang, director of Beifa Test Lab.
Beifa has ordered the first batch of domestic pen tips from TISCO, and the company expects to completely replace imported materials in two years.
The pen tip dilemma was first brought under the spotlight by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in January last year, and it gives a small insight into a larger problem faced by Chinese manufacturers -- weak competitiveness in core technology.
To move up to the upper level of the supply chain, China has implemented an innovation-driven strategy to create growth opportunities and upgrade traditional sectors.
A guideline published by the People's Publishing House last May said that China had pledged to become an "innovative nation" by 2020, an international leader in innovation by 2030, and a world powerhouse of scientific and technological innovation by 2060.
Last November, an industry standard on steel pen tips, drafted by TISCO, was approved by CMSI, China's national steel standards committee, to spur more innovation.
"We are committed to become the leader in industrial steel materials through innovation," said Li Jianmin, technology director of TISCO.