One for the books: A quality made-in-China ballpoint pen

BEIJING • China produces some of the world's most spectacular infrastructure and has sent astronauts into space, but there has been one technological feat that has eluded it so far: the ability to produce a decent ballpoint pen using locally made materials and components.

That hurdle appears to now have been surpassed after five years of trial and error, with Taiyuan Iron and Steel - one of China's biggest stainless steel-makers - finally working out the appropriate mix of alloys for high-performance stainless steel and to extrude it into a wire feedstock just 2.3mm-thick, reported the South China Morning Post.

The failure to produce a quality ballpoint pen has been a symbol of the "big but not strong" manufacturing sector in China.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had lamented the situation, stating that it reflected badly on Chinese manufacturing in general, according to state media.

The country makes and exports about 38 billion ballpoint pens a year. But, despite the size of the market, it was forced to import large quantities of stainless steel and advanced equipment from Japan and Switzerland for making the pen tips, according to Mr Xu Jundao, an executive from Beifa, the largest writing instrument manufacturing centre in Asia. "The tips of ballpoint pens require very high-grade stainless steel and precision machining," Mr Xu said in a programme that aired this week on Shanxi Satellite Television.

Minister for Science and Technology Wan Gang said in 2011 that China's ballpoint pen-makers made a tiny profit of 10 US cents (14 Singapore cents) on a pen sold for US$2, with 90 per cent of ballpoint tips and 80 per cent of ink imported or made on imported machines, reported state news agency Xinhua.

China invested about 60 million yuan (S$12.5 million) between 2011 and 2014 to develop better writing materials and equipment for pens.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'One for the books: A quality made-in-China ballpoint pen'. Print Edition | Subscribe