Factories in China have begun replacing humans with robots. The appetite for European-made industrial robots is rapidly growing, as rising wages, a shrinking workforce, and cultural changes drive more Chinese businesses towards automation. Recently, China showcased its burgeoning robot industry at the 2016 World Robot Conference in Beijing. This was part of a national effort to promote the use of more advanced technologies in Chinese factories and create high-end products that redefine the meaning of “Made in China.”
China’s goal to upgrade their factories and production lines heavily relies on the use of advanced robots; industries are facing rising labour costs and slower growth in the workforce due to the “one-child” policy era and aging of the population. While China is some ways behind other nations like Germany and Japan in the robot revolution, the Xiao I bot has already been ranked as number one among all the robots shown at the conference. The Xiao I bot can decipher human language as well as how people think. The exhibitors showed how the bot performs its analytical skill of decoding massive data, allowing the robot to respond to instructions very well. Other top bots among this one were Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo, and Microsoft’s Cortana.
The industrial robot, however, can greatly help in solving one of China’s constantly growing problems: the diminishing supply of cheap labour from people with little expertise. For decades, this was one of the key aspects to making China’s economy the second largest in the world. Millions of labourers left the countryside and flooded the industrial cities in hopes of moving their children into the middle class. However, there are no longer enough workers being recruited, and their population is aging. Many protest the work being labour intensive and tiring, resulting in wage increases aimed at luring and keeping more people at factories. As young people continue to dismiss opportunities in this field, it only feeds this problem.
The shift from human to robots is not just a business move, it is a fundamental shift in labour for one of the world’s largest manufacturers. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for a “robot revolution” as the government has promised generous subsidies. Thousands of factories in southern China’s industrial centres, usually manned by low-cost migrant workers, are now turning to robots. China has become the world’s top consumer of industrial robots and will soon have the most commercial robots in operation of any country.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, China was already the world’s biggest market for industrial robots in 2013. In 2014, Chinese factories accounted for 25% of the world’s industrial robots, a 54% increase over the previous year. Last year, Chinese manufacturers bought 68,000 of the 248,000 industrial robots sold globally. China’s leaders are further pushing to become not just the world’s largest robot buyer, but also a leading producer as another large factor is the market cost of robots. Robotic technologies that were once prohibitively expensive are now cheap enough that it has become feasible for Chinese factories to produce them.
Many of China’s factories still have human workers, but more and more factories will have partially automated production lines, with human workers interspersed at certain points. While China still has more than 40 per cent of its population living in the countryside, many in poverty, the government is sure that the benefits of promoting cutting-edge manufacturing will outweigh the damage from the potential jobs lost. The industrial strategy announced by Beijing last year, known as “Made in China 2025”, is designed to not only improve the technological capabilities of its factories, but also to support the development of Chinese brands internationally.
Robots can work more quickly than humans with a higher degree of consistency and precision for longer periods of time. With China’s high job turnover rates, investing in robots may help companies survive longer and allow for more complex tasks to be carried out. China’s robot revolution may ultimately bring a stronger economy and stronger markets, all of which can help China’s factories and people.
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