Chinese manufacturing enters the era of robotics

According to the International Federation of Robotics, China has become the world’s largest industrial robot market with an annual growth rate of 54% and sales volume of 56,000 units in 2014. However, there is still room for growth, especially with the increasing need for a skilled workforce.


Aileen Jin, editor-in-chief, Control Engineering China, explains that the new environmental protection law in China may translate into large investments in controls, automation, and instrumentation. Courtesy: Control Engineering ChinaSome Chinese manufacturers are substituting humans with machines to reduce the impact of labor shortages and excessively high costs of production. A private enterprise in Dongguan, Guangdong, China is building an "unmanned factory" to reduce its dependence on the rural labor force, which comes with rising costs. This will be the first such factory in Dongguan. The company plans to invest in 1,000 robots in the first phase to reduce the labor force from 2,000 to 200 people.

As the center of labor-intensive manufacturing in China, Dongguan has a labor employment of 100,000 people. From 2014 on, Dongguan Municipal Government will make an annual investment of $32.21 million (200 million RMB) for three consecutive years to support enterprises that carry out the plan of "substituting humans with machines." According to the director of Dongguan Economy & Information Technology Bureau, at present, there have been 505 such projects in Dongguan to upgrade traditional factories with robotics, and more than 30,000 positions have been eliminated.

Dongguan is just a miniature of the large "world factories." The entire Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta region is actively investing in robotics. According to the Three-year Action Plan of the Fight for Industrial Transformation and Upgrade in Guangdong Province (2015-2017), released in March 2015, in the next three years $8.31 billion (51.6 billion RMB) will be invested to support industrial transformation and upgrades in Guangdong Province in the next three years. In Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, special funds of $96.56 million (600 million RMB) every year for three consecutive years were introduced in 2014 to help transform the economy with robotic investments. In Zhejiang Province, an investment plan of $80.51 billion (500 billion RMB) was also implemented in 2014 to be used for 5,000 robotics projects each year. 

China's robotic challenges

In 2014, China's industrial robotic market experienced explosive growth due in part to a large-scale release of policies like those mentioned above. Other factors include the country's labor shortage and the competitive advantages brought on by implementing robotics (i.e., reducing workforce costs). The latest survey by International Federation of Robotics said China has become the largest industrial robot market globally with a growth rate of 54% and a sales volume of 56,000 units in 2014.

Of the 56,000 robots purchased in China, 40,000 come from international robot suppliers including ABB, Kuka, Yaskawa, Fanuc, and others. The remaining 16,000 units come from more than 400 robot manufacturers in China. It is reported that among homemade robots, a great portion of core components are imported from abroad. The gearing, controller, and servo motor, which are the core components of industrial robotics, account for 75% of the Chinese robot cost.

This shows that behind the prosperous market of industrial robot, the Chinese robot manufacturers are still behind on the production of core components, the design of application systems, and the overall solutions. Lack of a skilled workforce is another factor restricting the development of China's robot industry.

"At present, the development bottleneck of China's robotics industry is not productivity, but insufficient talent in the market," said Gu Chunyuan, chairman and president of ABB (China) Co. Ltd. Robot engineers from different industries have a very different command of system integration, software application, and procedures. It takes time to cultivate skilled workers for each industry.

Growth cannot be addressed just through the transformation of one production line or one workstation. It needs integration of the whole system to use the lowest amount of assets, energy, and costs to provide the best products for clients. Whether substituting humans with machines or establishing unmanned factories, the strategy ultimately aims to realize intelligent manufacturing of human-machine collaboration. Robots will gradually substitute those simple and dull tasks that people are unwilling to do. With the large-scale application of robots, enterprises also will have a growing demand for high-quality talent engaged in the design, operation, and maintenance of robots. The introduction of new technologies alters the distribution of the labor force and presents a new type of talent.

The Guiding Opinion about Promoting Industrial Development of Industrial Robot, issued in 2013 by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said by 2020 a relatively complete system of industrial robots will be formed. The market share of high-end products will be improved by more than 45%, and the density of robots will reach more than 100 (the number of units of robots used by every 10,000 workers). At present, the market share of homemade brands is less than 30%, medium and low-end products play the dominant role, and the density of robots is about 20 units. More effort will be needed to reach the expected goal in five years.

- Aileen Jin, editor-in-chief, Control Engineering China. Edited by Joy Chang, digital project manager, Control Engineering,

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This was translated and edited for Control Engineering from Control Engineering China. 

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