Ballpoint pens are so unnoticeable because we see them every day. When you stop and look at it you may wonder how are ballpoint pens made?
Ballpoint pens are made by melting plastic into molds for the barrel. The tips are made by stamping metal–usually brass. The ball at the tip is then pressed and smoothed. Then, the ink is mixed and fed into a plastic reservoir. Finally, all of the parts are assembled.
Though ballpoint pens may seem simple, there is a surprising amount of thought that goes into their construction. Below, I will cover each step in more detail, the materials used, where pens are made, and their cost (including how much I believe Bic makes for each pen sold).
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Detailed steps on making ballpoint pens
In order to mass-produce ballpoint pens, manufacturers need to have production down to a science. The major steps for making a common plastic ballpoint pen are as follows.
- Polypropylene copolymer (PPC) pellets are measured and collected in a hopper.
- The PPC pellets are melted and poured into a barrel mold. When cooled, the pen barrels are removed to wait for the rest of the parts.
- The plastic caps go through a similar process. PPC pellets are collected, melted, and formed.
- The metal tip is formed using an industrial press. Amounts of brass are softened by heat and then fed through a press. The metal pieces are forced into the shape of a pen tip.
- The metal ball (if not sourced externally) is made from metal powder. Using tungsten carbide powder, rough balls are made in molds.
- The rough balls are then put through a machine that shapes them into perfect spheres.
- At the same time as the plastics and metals are made, Ink is made using a mixture of solvents, dye, and fatty acids. This is mostly mixed by computer.
- When cooled and tested for viscosity, the ink is injected into plastic reservoirs.
- Finally, all of the parts are assembled on an assembly line. Decoration on the pen, if any is done at this point. Brand names are printed onto the pen barrel.
Of these steps, forming the tungsten carbide ball is the most difficult. The ball must be perfectly spherical down to the micron or millionth of a meter level.
Here is a vide of Bic’s manufacturing process:
Common materials used in ballpoint pens
The above method only applies to plastic pens. Ballpoint pens come in many different materials and styles. However, some of the parts are commonly made with the same materials. That said, fancier pens often take more care to make.
Whether the ballpoint pen is a dime a dozen or meant to last a lifetime, here are some of the most common materials used.
- Polypropylene copolymer
- Tungsten carbide
- Stainless steel
These materials are commonly used for specific parts. PPC is used to make the barrel and cap on plastic pens. PPC is both lightweight and sturdy. Brass is used to make the tip that holds the ball. This metal is easy to shape and is resistant to corrosion.
The ball that applies ink is made from tungsten carbide as it won’t become misshapen. Many pens use rubber to make a grip on the barrel. Those that don’t are often metal pens. Metal pen barrels are often made from aluminum. Stainless steel is often used for the springs inside pens.
What is pen ink made of?
No matter what material the ballpoint is made of it needs quality ink. Ballpoint pen manufacturers who make their ink have to ensure that the ink will behave as needed. It must be slow to dry in the reservoir, thick enough to apply easily, and quick to dry when applied.
To achieve these requirements ink is made according to precise formulas. Naturally, manufacturers guard their exact formula. However, the basic principles are available to the public.
Ballpoint pen ink is at its simplest, dye mixed with a solvent. The suspended dye gives the color while the solvent affects the viscosity. Ink solvent is either water or oil. However, there is more to ballpoint ink than dye and solvent.
There are a few additives that make pen ink behave correctly. These additives are fatty acids and surfactants. These are the ingredients that are kept secret. Though commonly used fatty acids include oleic acid. Adding certain ingredients can benefit the ink by reducing clogs.
Where are ballpoint pens manufactured?
Since ballpoint pens don’t always include labels stating where they were made you may be wondering just where they come from. It depends greatly on the brand of pen. Some brands are only made in one country while others are more spread out.
The majority of the world’s ballpoint pens are made in China. The percentage of pens made in China was close to 80% in 2017. It is highly likely that the number is similar if not higher today. As mentioned previously, there are a few companies that only make pens in countries like China or the USA.
A couple of the companies that manufacture their pens in America include Fisher Space Pens, Edison Pen Co., and Franklin-Christoph.
Cost of making a ballpoint pen
Most of the choice in location has to do with cost. Companies naturally want to have the greatest profit margin. The question then is how much it costs to make a ballpoint pen. You may be surprised at how cheap it can be.
While by no means a quality pen, the cheapest ballpoint pen I’ve seen is 0.035 USD. For context, a box of 60 Bic pens is roughly $6.99. This comes out to about 0.12 USD per pen.
I analyzed Bic’s financials (the company is located in Franch and called Societe Bic). According to their 2021 annual report, the company’s gross margin was 51%. So the average product cost around $0.51 for every $1 sold. If we apply this logic to the 60 Bic pens, the materials used to make the pen was somewhere around $0.06 per pen.
Unfortunately, the company doesn’t break out gross margin by division, so that number includes other products such as razor blades and lighters. The report does mention that the stationary division’s net margin was 5.4%. This means the average pen or notebook brought in around $0.05 of revenue for every $1 spent after all costs have been accounted for. In our 60 Bic Pen example, this would mean that Bic makes about half a pen for every pen sold!
Now you know the basic answer to the question “how are ballpoint pens made.” As simple as ballpoint pens seem there is quite a bit that goes into making them. From the choice of materials such as polypropylene copolymer to the formula for the ink.
You also have a new fun fact to use as an ice breaker. The smallest part of a ballpoint pen is the most difficult to make.