After decades of meteoric growth, China is vying to lead the world in a wide range of technologies—radar-evading stealth fighter jets in the air, high-speed trains on the ground, missile-armed cruisers at sea, and sophisticated satellites in space.
Now Beijing is competing in a new venue: underground.
A state-owned railroad company based in central China has begin transforming itself into one of the planet's top producers of high-tech tunnel-boring machines, or TBMs—in essence, giant drills that can churn through earth and rock and seamlessly lay concrete segments to produce tunnels, subway tubes and sewer lines.
But there's a catch: While China is beginning to assemble its own tunnel-boring machines, it still relies on critical, foreign-made components that its own industries can't manufacture on its own.
TBMs must stand up to tremendous stress, making them difficult to design and build—and that difficulty increases with the machine's size.
"As the face [of the borer] gets bigger it gets more dangerous," Ning Haoson, commercial manager for China Railway Engineering Equipment Group Company, told Motherboard. "Stabilizing is hard," Ning added. "All of it is a challenge." Motherboard spoke to Haoson during a visit to the firm's headquarters and factory in Zhengzhou, an industrial city 380 miles south of Beijing. The China-US Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit, sponsored the visit.
At the sprawling Zhengzhou factory in late February, welders are working on the 36-foot diameter bearing of Jing Chen No. 2, the second edition of China's biggest TBM design. Jing Chen No. 1 is currently drilling a tunnel in Beijing.
Operated by a crew of ten, the $14.5-million machines can chew through 1,300 feet of soil and stone per month, laboring for as many as 10,000 hours before they wear out.
The high-voltage powered boring machines boast a flat, toothed cutting head made of super-hard chromium attached to a propulsion system by a spinning bearing: Imagine a locomotive with a huge, jagged, spinning dinner plate attached to the front. As the TBM grinds forward, a huge, spinning screw pushes debris back and away from the machine. Meanwhile, automated gantries—supportive frames—place concrete wall segments just behind the cutting head. The TBM drills and paves a few feet at a time, safely and efficiently doing the same work that, a century ago, might have required hundreds of shovel-wielding laborers.
China Railway Engineering Equipment Group Company's parent firm, CTE Limited, used to buy or rent TBMs from other countries—mostly Germany—in order to build rail tunnels for China's fast-expanding network of freight trains and high-speed passenger trains. In 2008, when the Chinese economy was expanding by double-digit percentages annually, the company stopped merely buying TBMs and started producing them under its new subsidiary, the China Railway Engineering Equipment Group Company.
In eight years, CREG has produced 400 TBMs for Chinese projects and, starting in 2012, has shipped 20 of the huge machines abroad to countries Israel, India, Lebanon, Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia. In a dark control room at the Zhengzhou headquarters, CREG staff monitor some of the boring machines in real time.
Those 20 sales make CREG one of the world's leading builders of boring machines. The top TBM-maker, Germany's Herrenknecht AG, told the Wall Street Journal in 2016 that it provided boring machines to as many as 100 different projects annually. A single project can involve several TBMs.
Compared to the 42-year-old Herrenknecht, CREG is still new to the TBM market. But the Chinese firm is catching up fast, thanks, ironically, in large part to Germany—China's main rival in the boring-machine market. CREG purchased TBM design data from German firms and hired 200 engineers, including some experienced German designers.
The German hires were no accident. "We tried to bring in more foreigners," Ning said. They possessed technical knowledge that their Chinese colleagues lacked.
CREG wasn't incapable of innovating on its own. As a former TBM-user, the company had a lot of practical experience with the machines. They knew, for example, that debris tends to clog up a boring machine's cutting head. Ning said CREG added a large opening in its TBMs' cutting heads to help move loose rock and dirt away from the TBM. "We made a new way," he explained.
The Chinese company started with small TBMs, like its 20-foot-diameter model. It's planning to build its first 49-foot model in the summer of 2017.
Japan is also a big producer of TBMs, including Seattle's troubled "Big Bertha." At 57.5 feet, Big Bertha, made by Hitachi Zosen Sakai Works, is the world's largest TBM. Big Bertha famously jammed up while digging a road tunnel in 2014.
Truly outcompeting with the Germans and Japanese on the world market could require Chinese companies to make a major technological breakthrough. While CREG largely designs and assembles boring machines on its own, it still buys parts from abroad from "well-known and established suppliers from all around the world," according to the company's website.
Ning said he isn't too worried—yet. The domestic market is big enough to keep CREG in business for the foreseeable future. "In China, we're already pretty busy."