China is laying the groundwork for a robot revolution by planning to automate the work currently done by millions of low-paid workers.
The government’s plan will be crucial to a broader effort to reform China’s economy while also meeting the ambitious production goals laid out in its latest economic blueprint, which aims to double per capita income by 2020 from 2016 levels with at least 6.5% annual growth. The success of this effort could, in turn, affect the vitality of the global economy.
The scale and importance of China’s robot ambitions were made clear when the vice president of the People’s Republic of China, Li Yuanchao, appeared at the country’s first major robotics conference, held recently in Beijing. Standing onstage between two humanoid entertainment robots with outsized heads, Li delivered a message from China’s leader, Xi Jinping, congratulating the organizers of the effort. He also made it clear that robotics would be a major priority for the country’s economic future.
Many of the robots on show at the conference’s exhibition hall were service or entertainment robots such as automated vacuum cleaners, cheap drones, or quirky looking machines designed to serve as personal companions. But there were also many industrial robots that signaled the real impetus for China’s robot push: its manufacturing sector.
China is already the world’s largest producer of everything from clothes to electronics, but much of it depends on low-cost, low-skill labor. And even as economic growth has slowed, wages continue to rise across the country as the economy evolves. The Chinese government is also eager to see its workforce diversify and its manufacturing industries become more technologically advanced.
Robots might offer a clever solution to some of these challenges. If more robots can be deployed successfully in many manufacturing plants, this would increase efficiency while also allowing some workers to be replaced. At the same time, because more capable robots will require advanced sensing, manipulation, and intelligence, the drive could help promote the technical expertise of the remaining manufacturing workers, as well as those employed in designing, building, and servicing these manufacturing machines.
The scale of this robot revolution could be enormous. Two years ago China became the world’s largest importer of robots, and the International Federation of Robotics, an industry group, estimates that China will account for more than a third of all industrial robots installed worldwide by 2018. Yet the number of robots per worker in China is far lower than in many industrially advanced countries, indicating a huge potential for growth.
A more comprehensive effort to upgrade China’s manufacturing base is already underway, under a program announced in May known as Made in China 2025, which aims to make China an innovative and green “world manufacturing power” by that year. The effort involves adding connectivity and intelligence to manufacturing equipment and factories, to improve overall flexibility and efficiency. It was inspired by Germany’s Industry 4.0 effort, launched in 2011, and by similar efforts to promote more advanced manufacturing in the U.S.
The robotic component of this overhaul will be about more than just installing more robots in manufacturing plants, however. Some of the tasks currently done by humans cannot easily be automated at low cost while others, such as fine manipulation or visual inspection, will require sophisticated hardware and software to mechanize.
Tianran Wang, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and an expert on industrial automation, spoke about China’s manufacturing industry at the Beijing event. He said that it lagged behind those of other nations and would need a major technological overhaul. He also emphasized that part of the challenge will be figuring out which tasks can be automated most effectively, and how machines and humans can share the workload. “Not all labor-intensive industry can be automated,” Tianran said. “We need hybrid automation.”
China may soon become not only an important market for more advanced robotic technology, but a producer of more advanced robot systems itself. Many international robot makers were present at the Beijing conference, including the German giant Kuka and the Swiss company ABB. But dozens of Chinese robot companies were also present, including some companies that have only been around for a few years.
Siasun, an industrial robot manufacturer based in Shanghai, is developing a range of robots designed to help factories automate more of their work. In an industrial park on the outskirts of the city, at a showroom where the company demonstrates new products to prospective customers, I saw a dexterous new six-axis robot arm in action as well as wheeled robots that move products from one part of a production line to the next. The company is also developing robotic solutions that are customized for specific industries, such as a robot for painting the sides of ships by climbing up and down a cable that hangs down the side of the hull.
Daokui Qu, the president of Siansun, said the priorities for robot makers would be to develop more flexible systems with advanced sensing, as well as finding better ways for robots to toil effectively and safely alongside human workers. He added that the company had already received a lot of orders for the mobile robot arm it was developing, and that it was developing a gesture-controlled robot that should be easier for workers to interact with.
Before leaving the stage to tour the Beijing conference’s exhibition hall, Vice President Li suggested that robotics researchers and companies from outside the country would be welcome to take part in the country’s robot revolution: “China would like to welcome robot experts and entrepreneurs from all over the world to communicate and coӧperate with us, in order to push forward the development of robot technology and industry.”