A worker operates industrial robot arms in the workshop of Shanghai-FANUC Robotics Co in Baoshan district of Shanghai. (Photo: Chen Qingqing/GT)
The "Made in China 2025" strategy unveiled two years ago by the State Council, China's cabinet, is urging domestic manufacturers to upgrade. One crucial part of the strategy is accelerating the automation and deployment of industrial robots. Meanwhile, the continued proliferation of the Internet and smartphone is also boosting the development of service robots. As more and more Chinese factories install industrial robots and tech startups rush into developing diversified service robots, China is now becoming a huge robotics market. Global Times recently traveled to several robot companies in Shanghai and discovered hot trends in the sector as well as its remaining challenges.
A decade ago, it was hard to imagine that someday in the future, workers at a phone assembly line in China would no longer need to grab components on a conveyor belt and insert them into an integrated circuit block themselves, a robot could instead do all this work. Fast forward to today, in some factories, robots can now work alongside humans.
China's fast-growing robotics market has driven more funds for industry investment in the past two years, which has in return lured more manufacturers into the automation sector. Due to rising labor costs and evolving production processes, the manufacturing sector has been urged to shift toward high added value.
The government has also set a slew of concrete targets for the industry to reach by 2020.
For example, the annual output of self-sufficient industrial robots is set to reach 100,000 units, according to a guideline unveiled by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in April 2016. The annual output of 6-axis industrial robots, which feature articulated arms for dexterity and flexibility, is expected to hit 50,000 units.
"Many foreign players in the industry are starting to notice China's huge potential within the robotics market," William Liu, general manager of Kollmorgen, a Virginia-based designer and manufacturer of motion control products, told the Global Times.
As an original equipment manufacturer, Kollmorgen serves about 60 percent of collaborative robots (co-robots) manufacturers worldwide, with KUKA, one of the world's largest industrial robot producers, being one of them.
Large scale deployment of industrial robots, commonly installed in the auto industry, has now extended to other sectors in China including the computer, communication, and consumer electronics (3C), food and beverage, and home appliance sectors.
Simultaneously, more start-ups have been rushing into the service robot sector over the past two years and designing new products, which have later been used in homes, restaurants, banks and even administrative agencies.
Robots as colleagues
A few years ago, many factories in China's Pearl River Delta region, the heartland of manufacturing, would not have survived if they had not been equipped with industrial robots. This was because they had no choice but to increase efficiency, especially during a time when labor costs continued to rise and recruitment was challenging, Qian Hui, general manager of Shanghai-FANUC Robotics Co, told the Global Times.
The company is a joint venture between Japan's FANUC LTD, a leading industrial manufacturer, and Shanghai Electrical Industrial Company.
"Some factories that didn't introduce automation soon became obsolete," Qian said, noting that the company provides robots to about 30,000 manufacturers for now, including those in automotive, consumer products and food industries.