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Robot-needy China Readies to Build its Own?
Robot show in china
Will foreign dominance in industrial robots be countered by Chinese-made machines?
By Tom Green

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
                                                        —William Gibson

When will the KUKA robots at the Mercedes plant in Beijing be replaced by indigenous, Chinese-built robots of equal quality and performance, that are easily programmed, are much cheaper, and offer tax incentives enough to make CFOs grin from ear to ear? Probably, just after Great Wall Motors proudly marches its army of Chinese robots into production.

“China is the fastest growing market in robotics, and by 2014 it will top the global market.” International Federation of Robotics.

Robots everywhere are key to industrial success, not just in China, but to all manufacturing from food, to electronics to durable goods to heavy industry. They are not luxury items but must-have critical national assets for any country’s economic survival and hoped-for prosperity. 

The opportunity for China to manufacture its own, indigenous robots—and even export them to places like India—has never been better.

Robots in china2

Reminiscent of colonial powers cutting up China’s geography, foreign robot manufacturers are now staking out claims to China’s industrial robot markets. It rankles the Chinese more than the West can ever truly understand, and like foreign colonies before them, the window is closing on foreign robot manufacturers—even though some have just arrived to set up shop.

Total reliance on foreign robot manufacturers, but not for long.

“You don’t have to be an expert to see the (quality) gap between Chinese cars and those made by companies like Audi and Volkswagen,” said Li Shaohui, who oversees automatic control engineering for Great Wall Motors. “To beat those competitors we have no choice but to use a higher level of equipment and technology.”

That exact sentiment is echoed throughout every segment of Chinese manufacturing.  And not just in high-visibility industries like automobiles but also in places like the UBase factory in Ningbo City which makes refrigerators, freezers, stoves and washing machines? Common and utilitarian, but important stuff nonetheless. Right now the situation in China means total reliance on foreign robot manufacturers, but not for long.

China will probably never have the innovation style and dash of Western countries, as, for example, in the latest MIT discovery of the first all-carbon photovoltaic cells (from Carbon 60 fullerenes) that will make China’s world-leading silicon solar panel industry obsolete.
China’s brand of innovation, what it calls indigenous innovation, mostly comes down to hard work and access to Western technology. Beijing requires foreign manufacturers in China to operate in joint ventures, in hopes their Chinese partners will learn and grow.

Robots in china3

Before making a deal for a joint venture, the Chinese insist on a willingness to transfer technology to China and employ Chinese in upper management. Indigenous innovation is part IP technology transfer, part scrutiny from a joint venture partners and part being industrious enough to cobble it all together into a viable product.

They’ve done it with computers, computer chips, supercomputers, aircraft and avionics, right on down to using Russian engineering for the recent national high-tech triumph of Jing Haipeng and his Shenzhou-9 space mates.

Along the way, Made in China is already transforming its reputation, as Made in Japan did before it, into a manufacturer of high-quality domestic goods capable of supporting a flourishing export market.

Just recently, “China Telecom successfully entered the UK mobile communications market for 2013 as well as the French mobile communications market; China Telecom will continue in 2014 with entry into Germany, Italy and the mobile communications market in Spain.”

The economics that brought about Great Wall Motors (now with exports up 42%), in response to foreign hegemony in motor vehicles, may bring about Great Wall Robots. Foreign automakers still dominate but Zhōngguó, Middle Nation, is watching closely as it is with robots.

The timing couldn’t be better for a homegrown, big-time robotics manufacturing effort, which may happen sooner than anyone thinks.

The social and economic ingredients are already in place.

For the first time in its history there are more people in China’s cities 690 million (twice the population of the U.S.) than in the countryside 680 million. That critical and ongoing shift means lots of city folks will be needing lots of durable goods like automobiles, stoves and refrigerators, all of which means lots of manufacturing is going on everywhere, with lots of opportunity for industrial robots to lend a metal arm or two to the cause.

Although the Chinese economy has tumbled from 11.9 percent growth (1Q2010) to just under 8 percent in 2012, it’s still a corker of an economy with a GDP of $5T. The economies of its BRIC brethren are wobbly, at best; Europe’s economy is, well, Euro-grim; and the U.S. economy, battered and bruised, is trying to pull off a Rocky Balboa, but needs time.

The following news dispatches amply demonstrate the impact of robots on China’s manufacturing sectors, and more importantly, the dawningly inescapable realization by the Chinese just how important these machines really are.

News dispatch #1: Reuters from Baoding, China—

The giant orange robotic arms that swiftly weld together car frames at the Great Wall Motors factory in Baoding might seem like the perfect answer to China’s fast-rising labor costs - they don’t ask for a raise, get injured or go on strike.

For Great Wall, a private sector Chinese car maker that employs 50,000 workers, the Swiss robots and other machinery that line its bright factory floor produce more than cost savings. The company hopes they will help it build cars good enough to compete with the global auto makers.

“You don’t have to be an expert to see the (quality) gap between Chinese cars and those made by companies like Audi and Volkswagen,” said Li Shaohui, who oversees automatic control engineering for the company. “To beat those competitors we have no choice but to use a higher level of equipment and technology.”

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