Machines increasingly take the place of humans in China’s factories

By Zhang Hui Source:Global Times Published: 2015-9-22 20:38:01

A worker fine-tunes a robotic arm at a factory that produces robots in Foshan, Guangdong Province on May 7. Photo: CFP

 Netizens were amazed by photos showing a robot chef making noodles in a restaurant in Wuhan, Hubei Province this week, but don't be surprised if one day soon this becomes a common sight in your neighborhood.

Outside the catering industry, the rapid growth in the robotics sector means robots are increasingly taking the place of humans in China's manufacturing.

Since China unveiled its "China Manufacturing 2025" strategy to further upgrade the country from a manufacturer of quantity to one of quality in March, several provinces have published plans to push for the greater use of robots in industries like automobile manufacturing, textiles and electronics.

Robots could also help tackle China's long-running labor shortage, and help creating more high-skilled jobs to improve the grim employment situation of college graduates, observers said.

Robots coming

Everwin Precision Technology Co is one of the first factories in Guangdong Province to introduce robots to their assembly lines.

A pair of mechanical arms can replace between six to eight workers, and now 60 pairs of mechanical arms work 24 hours a day on 10 assembly lines which used to require 650 workers, assistant manager Luo Weiqiang, told the Xinhua News Agency in July. The factory plans to introduce a total of 1,000 such machines and cut 80 percent of its workforce.

The huge demand for robots has led to the mushrooming of China's robot companies.

China now has over 500 robot companies, accounting for half of such companies globally. Most of them were established within the past four years, China National Radio reported.

China was the world's biggest buyer of robots in 2013, Reuters reported.

Most robots are designed to replace workers doing repetitive and low-skill work or working in harsh environments, and also to help humans complete high-accuracy tasks, Sun Ying, deputy president of the Zhejiang Robot Association and head of a robot company in Hangzhou, told the Global Times.

"Robots will not completely replace humans, as various industries still require high-skilled workers," Sun said.

Her company's sales grew by 50 percent just one year after the company was established in 2012, and have continued to soar, she said.

"China needs to rely on basic industries to catch up with developed countries, the core of which is manufacturing, and intelligent manufacturing is the core of manufacturing," Sun said.

Experts predicted that the value of China's robot market will grow by 50 percent in coming years, reaching over 100 billion yuan ($15 billion) by 2020.

The boom in robot manufacturing has benefited from government support.

The Guangdong government announced that it will invest 943 billion yuan in replacing human laborers with robots over the next three years, and also plans to build two advanced industrial bases for robot production by the end of 2017.

Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, a manufacturing city that has suffered from under-investment in the robotics sector, announced on Monday that it will invest 2 billion yuan every year to encourage robot production, according to the China News Service. 

Labor shortage

The reason that "pro-robot" policies have been introduced is the shrinking workforce and the increasing cost of workers, Du Yang, a research fellow with the Institute of Population and Labor Economic at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.

"The demand for robots in manufacturing is a market behavior, and there is no need to worry that the employment rate might drop," Du said.

The Pearl River Delta in South China, which relies heavily on migrant laborers to work in its thousands of factories, has been suffering from an unstable labor supply for years despite the growing wages on offer, Sun said.

According to the China News Service, Guangdong will suffer a shortfall of nearly 800,000 laborers this year.

Both Du and Sun believe the introduction of robots will greatly ease labor shortages in South China.

"It could also improve the grim employment situation for college graduates, as the robot industry will create more high-skilled jobs," Du said.

Newspaper headline: Robot replacements

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