China seeks to upgrade manufacturing by becoming automation leader

Updated 2017-08-08 10:37:29 Global Times

China's manufacturing industry revolution is in full swing as more and more factories introduce robots to take the place of human workers.

"Industrial robots will witness a 'golden period of development' in the next 20 to 30 years in China with the transformation and upgrading of Chinese manufacturing," Luo Jun, CEO of the International Robotics and Intelligent Equipment Industry Alliance, an industry thinktank, told the Global Times.

Meanwhile, service robots that can be used as domestic helpers and in hospitals, hotels and nursing homes are becoming increasingly known to the public.

Government initiatives to improve the quality of China's industries, such as "China Manufacturing 2025," have sought to support the country's robot industry.

China, which still relies on imports to meet its demand for robots, lags behind the West in robotic R&D and observers have pointed out that bridging this gap is key to the country becoming a world-leader in the sector.

Unmanned factories

In a workshop in Dongguan, South China's Guangdong Province, 150 robots do everything on the assembly line from processing raw materials to assembling finished products. Their owner, Vision Tool, specializes in designing and building the stamping implements used by automobile companies, including Volvo, Ford and Tesla, the news site thepaper.cn reported.

Vision Tool is the latest epitome of Dongguan's automated manufacturing. The first unmanned factory in Dongguan actually appeared two years ago. The Everwin Precision Technology Co introduced 60 pairs of mechanical arms to work 24 hours a day on 10 assembly lines, replacing 650 workers. The factory plans to eventually introduce 1,000 such machines and cut 80 percent of its workforce, the Xinhua News Agency reported in July 2015.

Manufacturers' demand for robots has led to the factories that produce these products also having to work around the clock.

China has more than 40 robotics industrial parks and 800 robot-manufacturing companies as of March. But most domestically-made robots are medium to low-end products, Xin Guobin, vice minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, told the media in March.

Sun Ying, deputy president of the Zhejiang Robot Association and head of a robotics firm in Hangzhou, told the Global Times that her company's sales revenue reached 200 million yuan ( million) last year, up from just 600,000 yuan in 2012 when the company was established.

Sun's company mainly provides industrial robots for the detection of flaws and measurements to the logistics, automobile and optical communication sectors.

"Most of our robots were sold to factories in southern China in the past, but starting this year, our market has expanded to European countries including Russia, the Czech Republic and Finland following China's Belt and Road initiative," Sun said.

Meanwhile, the company is also eyeing the service robot industry, establishing a new branch last year to develop medical robots for nursing homes, according to Sun.

The National Manufacturing Strategy Advisory Committee, a national advisory organ, said it predicts that more than 150,000 industrial robots will be sold in China by 2020, with more than 800,000 in service by then. The committee added that the sector will be worth tens of billions of yuan and will be globally competitive, thepaper.cn reported.

Catch up

As China is a manufacturing power that has long been focused on labor-intensive industries, the transformation of its manufacturing needs robots to improve its automation level, Luo said.

But China has struggled to keep pace with Western countries in developing and researching robots, and the techniques behind core components of industrial robots, such as electrical machinery and controllers, are monopolized by Japan and Germany, according to Luo.

"Even in the domestic industrial robot market, Chinese robot companies only account for 20 percent, and the rest is occupied by foreign or joint venture companies," Luo said.

Meanwhile Sun said that the low standardization of Chinese factories results in a prolonged research period for Chinese robot companies and a waste of their manpower, as assembly lines vary a lot between different factories in the same industry.

To encourage Chinese scientists to develop robotic technology, China has allocated 600 million yuan for 42 robotics programs this year, the Ministry of Science and Technology said in August.

Luo suggested the government step up efforts to develop next generation robots which use artificial intelligence, in order to narrow the gap with Western developed countries.

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