China?s current Five-Year Plan (the first ever that includes robotics) will draw to a close in 2015, and the government has begun to work all out to foster a homegrown robotics industry.
The next Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), which will also include robotics?but this time higher on the priority chain?will coincide with China?s robot buys exceeding those of longtime global front-runner Japan by 3,000 units (2016 total 34,000). Just eight years back, China?s total was a meager 4,500!
See related: Shanghai Express: China?s Robot Metropolis 2014-2020
What?s driving the furious push to robotics:
- Not enough workers: The worker population of 15- to 59-year-olds began shrinking in 2012 as a result of the one-child policy.
- Growing disdain for factory work: Increased education levels have caused young people to shun dirty, difficult and dangerous work.
- Rising wages: China?s leadership aims to double per capita income from 2010 levels by 2020, e.g. Wages in Suzhou (located in Jiangsu Province adjacent to Shanghai; population 10M) have nearly doubled in five years.
- Rise of urban middle class: 139M, equals entire population of Japan (170M more new urbanites will be added between now and 2022).
- Spending power: McKinsey reports that by 2022 ?more than 75 percent of China?s urban consumers will earn 60,000 to 229,000 yuan ($9,000 to $34,000) a year.”
- Consumption: By 2022, China?s middle class will be consuming goods and services valued at $3.4 trillion or 24 percent of GDP.
For example, here?s a teeny sample.
In 2012, 68 percent of upper middle-class households had a flat-screen TV; sales of flat-screen TVs totaled 50 million units ? more than the 42 million units sold that year in the U.S. and Canada.
China is also already the largest retail market for laptop computers, with 27 million units sold in 2012 against 22 million in the U.S. in 2012.
And this: According to Business Insider, “China’s auto sales smashed through the 20 million mark last year , growing nearly 14 percent and extending its lead as the world’s biggest car market?since 2009.?
To meet those startlingly enormous numbers, robots are being pushed into service. For now, foreign robot manufacturers from Europe, Japan, and the U.S predominate, but homegrown, indigenous robots are the ultimate goal.
Japan?s Nikkei Asian Review provides an insightful look into the build-up of robotics.
NIKKEI ASIAN REVIEW:?The casting industry is dangerous for humans because the work involves melting metal at high temperatures. A robot with multiple joints, like a human arm, can effortlessly carry molds weighing tens of kilograms and weld metal sections together quickly.
Six of these robots make automobile engine parts and other components at a foundry of Suzhou Mingzhi Technology in China’s Jiangsu Province.
Plans call for installing grinding robots this year. The manager expresses hope that robots will improve productivity, given the limits to what can be done by hand.
Japanese robot manufacturer Nachi-Fujikoshi drew a larger-than-expected audience when displaying its latest wares at a Jiangsu Province factory this past December.
Representatives from 20 or so local businesses, including foundries and bolt-processing companies, showed up. Their eyes were glued to robots performing such tasks as assembly and painting with speed and accuracy.
A personnel shortage is one reason for introducing robots. The manager at Mingzhi Technology says the harsh working conditions often lead young people to quit after less than three months. And increased education levels have caused young people to shun dirty, difficult and dangerous work.
Japan’s Yaskawa Electric says one of its multijoint robots can replace two workers, allowing the costs to be recouped in two years. Five years ago, recouping the outlays took three or four years. Robots have grown more attractive as labor costs rise.
The Chinese government has been pulling out all the stops to cultivate a homegrown robotics industry, including the training of engineers and industry development. Robots can contribute to better efficiency and quality, which meshes with the leadership’s focus on the quality of growth under the five-year plan through 2015. Manufacturing in China is at a turning point, the head of Yaskawa’s operations there argues.
Chinese users point out that system configuration and maintenance need addressing. Automation lines matching the needs of clients must be configured to make the most of robots, but China lacks enough engineers for such tasks.
The Changzhou Institute of Mechatronic Technology in Jiangsu Province set up a robotics-engineering unit last May. Yaskawa and Denso supplied a total of 17 robots to give students hands-on experience in operating them for such tasks as welding, transport and assembly.
Chinese universities and state-backed research institutions have been studying robots for more than a decade, and the fruits of their efforts are starting to show. A startup, Siasun Robot & Automation, increased its sales by about 30 percent to 1.04 billion yuan ($164 million) for 2012 by selling robots for welding, painting and transport at automobile plants.
The ranks of Chinese corporations entering the robot business have been growing since around 2010.
Although their offerings are still years behind the latest models from Japan and Europe, with more experience they could eventually catch up.
CONTROL AND ROBOTICS LABORATORY:?According to Ilian Bonev patents for indigenous Chinese robots are beginning to surface. Hon Fu Jin Precision Industry (a Foxconn subsidiary in Shenzhen) has been granted several dozen industrial robot-related US utility patents, one for a SCARA robot (US8201472), one for a cylindrical robot (US8240973), one for a Delta robot (US8210068), and one for a two-legged Delta robot (US8272290).
The company has also applied for US utility patents for a typical hexapod (US20120103128), a linear-drive two-legged Delta robot (US20110154936), four typical six-axis serial industrial robots (US20110303042, US20110113916, US20110106302, US20110126661), and a typical four-axis serial industrial robot (US20120067156), as well as for a copy (US20120079908) of Adept Technology?s Quattro parallel robot invented by Prof. Francois Pierrot and his team (US7735390).
In addition, training centers like Jincheng Senior Technical School are beginning to crop up all over China. Thousands of trained robot operators will be needed by 2020.
Slowly, with money and influence from the central government, infrastructure from R&D to manufacturing to operator training is starting to come on line.
Truly, given the six drivers of robotics from above, the job ahead for China is epic. China is the first great robot frontier of this century. Watching it all come together will be a fascinating spectacle; taking part in and investing in that pioneering could well be fantastically lucrative experience.