Since the US made peace with China in 1972 at the behest of their two very ruthless and practical leaders, Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon, the industrial world everywhere has been in a state of flux. Once the forward-thinking Deng Xao Ping took over China in 1981, China became the manual labor workshop of the world. Now, having removed access to low-paying, low-skilled labor work from the working class all over the world, China is on the verge of doing an ‘about face’ before becoming the largest buyer of industrial robots, because swift rising labor costs in their own country mean they face growing competition from other emerging economies like the ones in Bangladesh and Cambodia.
As a Chinese journalist recently told me at a tech convention, “In the long run, it will be cheaper to keep unskilled labor back home in the rural farmlands most of them come from or simply pay them not to work and go with the robots.”
Consider this, China bought one in five robots sold globally in 2013, overtaking tech-savvy Japan for the very first time, as part of its long-term centralized government attempt to improve productivity gains. China bought 36,560 industrial robots last year, a rise of almost 60 per cent over 2012, according to new figures from the International Federation of Robotics, an industry group based in Germany, according to Die Welt. Japan bought 26,015 robots in 2013, with the US in third place with 23,679.
Robot sales to China have increased 36 per cent, on average, every year from 2008 to 2013, according to Forbes. The further growth potential is huge. In 2012, China had just 23 robots for every 10,000 people employed in the manufacturing industry, compared with 396 in South Korea. Robot manufacturing is still currently dominated by the Japanese and big six Japanese companies account for about half of all robot sales in China. By contrast, China’s top four makers of robotics equipment have a combined market share of only about 5 per cent. While China is the fastest-growing market for robots, Japan still has, by far, the highest number of industrial robots in operation, with more than 310,000 in 2012, compared with 96,000 in China and 168,000 in the US.
The increased demand for robots in China is being driven primarily by large multinational manufacturers, especially in the automotive sector, although, as with Lenovo, their biggest corporation, the company is actually owned by their military. China’s car industry, the world’s largest, accounts for about 60 per cent of robot demand in the country, according to Forbes. Meanwhile, advances in artificial intelligence, sensors, hydraulics, and a far defter sense of mobility and artificial intelligence are helping to make robots more flexible, precise and autonomous. Naturally, this means they can be used in a wider range of manufacturing applications like packaging and processed food packaging.
The capacity of robots to enter new production segments, other than in automotive and semiconductors, through technology developments is ultimately bound to fuel further growth. Indeed, the global powers in the robot world, ABB of Switzerland, Google’s Boston Robotics, Japan’s Fanuc and Kuka of Germany, have been pouring resources into the Chinese market for a chance to ride on the coattails of the country’s race to capitalize on rapid automation. Atypically, in 2011, Foxconn, the Shenzhen-based assembler for Apple, made its workers collectively vow at a company ‘togetherness’ gathering to build a “million robot army” over three years while model workers made speeches praising their supervisors for hiring machines as substitutes for workers so that they would no longer be forced to perform repetitive manual tasks. Wasn’t this in a Star Wars movie?
Industrial technology aside, a number of techniques is emerging to develop robots and robotic science. Google’s Boston Robotics and their engineers tend to see beyond free menial labor and robots as war machines. One method is evolutionary robotics, through which a number of differing robots are submitted to tests. Those which perform best are used as a model to invent new ‘generations” of robots.
Unlike in the U.S, where the federal government tends to allow a lot of leeway to private enterprise, and China, where the military tends to be the main sponsor of most of their national research, much technological research in Japan is led by Japanese government agencies, particularly their Trade Ministry. Indeed, while China goes one way with robotics, work at MIT (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Stanford University aims to provide ways to program a robot’s navigation and limbs regardless of the specific hardware involved. Providing high-level commands for tasks like image recognition and disease testing and relay such data to higher-level algorithms.