China's growing robotics industry suffers from lack of operators, integration

Updated 2016-10-25 10:01:31 Global Times

At the World Robot Conference 2016, which ran from Friday to Tuesday in a southern suburb of Beijing, some companies complained that the event is unlikely to help them due to the overheated market. Manufacturers looking to automate have had a hard time finding workers to operate their robots, and the industry is still struggling with how to better integrate operation systems. The frenzy in China's robotics market is cooling, and people are raising more practical questions about how to best implement robotics in manufacturing.

On a chilly Friday afternoon, dozens of attendees at the World Robot Conference 2016 in suburban Beijing gathered around an industrial robotic arm demonstrating its delicate grip and wide range of motion.

The six-axis robotic arm can be used in a wide range of applications such as assembly, dispensing, materials handling and packaging.

"I am not surprised by the progress these exhibitors have made in automation. I know many Chinese factories are equipped with industrial robots to increase efficiency," an attendee surnamed Zhang told the Global Times on Friday at the conference, which ended on Tuesday.

China has been considered a growth market for industrial robots over the last few years, Vitaly Nedelskiy, president of the Russian Association of Robotics, said at the conference on Friday.

China's supply of industrial robots grew by a robust 17 percent in 2015, Nedelskiy noted. Companies installed 68,000 robots last year, though the ratio of robots to workers remains far below the global average.

Globally, the average ratio of robots to workers, known in the industry as robot density, stood at 69 installed robots for every 10,000 employees in 2015, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

By comparison, China's average robot density is about 49 robots per 10,000 workers, Nedelskiy noted.

Under its "Made in China 2025" or China's "Industry 4.0," the Chinese government has set a target for China to have 150 robots per 10,000 workers by 2020.

To achieve the goal, the country's industrial enterprises would have to add 600,000 to 650,000 industrial robots by the end of the decade, according to the IFR.

Because the government is encouraging Chinese manufacturers to install more automated machinery and robots to boost efficiency, about 3,400 companies around the country are now engaged in the robotics business, domestic industry news site reported in May.

However, the development of China's robotics industry has been uneven and the market has grown overheated, leaving major challenges that need to be addressed, industry experts said during the conference.

Men and machines

Despite the rapid growth of China's robotics industry, which had about 20 percent of the domestic market share in 2015, the country lacks workers trained to run the machines, said Qu Daokui, president of Shenyang SIASUN Robot & Automation Co. The lack of workers is one of the major issues many Chinese factories are facing today.

With the government so clearly behind the robotics industry, factories have jumped to acquire automated machinery. The city of Dongguan, South China's Guangdong Province, often referred to as "the world's factory," has adopted a strategy called "Robotics-powered Smart Manufacturing" to improve the productivity of local manufacturers.

There are nearly 200 robot manufacturers in Dongguan, according to a document the local government sent to the Global Times in February. So far, 400 factories have been equipped with a total of 10,000 robots.

Although they have the robots, they still need people to operate them, said Qu, whose company acquired a German vocational training institution in February.

"More and more factories are asking us to teach them how to use [industrial robots], instead of just installing them, which illustrates how important it is to educate more skillful workers," Qu told the Global Times.

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