by Xinhua writers Zhong Qun and Ma Xiaocheng
GUANGZHOU, July 28 (Xinhua) -- Industrial robots are assuming more and more prominence in China as the country's manufacturing industry is stymied by a severe worker shortage and soaring labor costs.
China bought one fifth of the world's industrial robot output in 2013, overtaking Japan as the biggest buyer of such technology, according to statistics released by the China Robot Industry Alliance (CRIA) recently.
Some 36,860 industrial robots were sold in the Chinese market last year, up 36 percent on an annual basis, according to the CRIA.
The passion for robots comes as Chinese businesses face pressure from a lack of manpower. A survey earlier this year showed a shortfall of 123,300 workers in the industrial southern Chinese heartland of Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. A similar warning was issued by the Fujian provincial government. According to the province's human resources and social security bureau, it faced a shortfall of 80,000 laborers after the Spring Festival holiday, a time of high turnover among China's army of migrant laborers.
Governments at various levels in China have announced new strategies to support the production and application of robots, hoping the technology can make businesses more profitable and steer local economic development.
Last week, the government of central China's Hubei Province issued a circular stipulating robotics should be developed to become a main business in the province by the end of 2020, when it is hoped it will have generated about 10 billion yuan (1.6 billion U.S. dollars) in revenue.
Under the wing of governmental support, the fledgling market is gaining momentum in a variety of localities.
For instance, Wuhan East Lake High-tech Development Zone of Hubei, is already home to 40 companies engaging in robotic technology, and they are trying to attract companions to build an incubator for industrial robots. If successful, it will become the first place in China where industrial robots are designed, programmed and built on a large scale.
Meanwhile, Shanghai, Chongqing, Anhui and Guangdong have all listed developing the robotics industry as priorities on their agendas, while more than 30 cities have established production bases for robots.
As Chinese enterprises feel the pinch of the lack of affordable labor, the emergence of robots seems to offer an efficient way to ease the pain.
In the injection moulding factory of Gree Electric Appliances Inc. of Zhuhai in Guangdong, raw plastic is turned into components for air conditioners in an automated process. Robotic arms then place the finished parts on a conveyer belt, while robots also transport goods in the bustling factory.
Almost everything is done by robots, with only packaging left to be handled by human workers, slashing the number needed by the largest maker of home air conditioners in China while making the factory more efficient.
"Since we started to employ robots, the number of workers we hire is down by over 100 from more than 300, but our work efficiency has surged by 20 percent," said Cheng Hailiang, head of the factory.
The same craze for robots can be found in Guangdong's Dongguan City, dubbed the "Factory of the World." According to a government survey, 66 percent of the city's companies have purchased robots in the past five years.
Of those surveyed, 92 percent have plans to increase such investments or to begin using robots in production.
RAGE AGAINST MACHINES
While robots may have improved efficiency in manufacturing, they have also triggered concerns of declining employment opportunities.
Government statistics in Dongguan show that half of the companies employing industrial robots in the city have laid off workers, causing speculation that the industry is posing a threat to China's labor market. But that accusation is refuted by the companies themselves.
"The automation process may have seen some workers laid off, but it has also created a huge number of job vacancies for laborers skilled at controlling the robots," according to Dong Mingzhu, chairman of Gree.
The firm has hired more than 1,000 new recruits this year, and is training them to work in an automated factory. It has also re-trained 372 laborers already working there.
Ding Li, a research fellow with the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences, believes it is essential for workers to gain new skills if they are to keep pace with what he calls "an intelligence revolution."
"The government should play an important role in training the laid-off workers to help them find jobs, while education departments should beef up human resources programs for the industry," Ding said.
Meanwhile, Wu Xinyu, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, sees robots' dirty work as actually benefiting the human workforce as "the chances of workers facing dangerous environments are lowered."
BARRIERS TO GROWTH
Employment controversy is not the only hurdle in the way of growth of robotics. Industrial robots are expensive.
Of the 36,860 robots bought by Chinese enterprises last year, 9,597 came from domestic producers, while the remaining 73 percent were imported. Even robots classified as home-grown in fact rely on key imported component.
If China is to start producing more of its own robots (and lower costs in the process), it needs to get round a dearth of talent.
"We are in dire need of talented people that can provide solutions and help with system integration in factories," according to Liu Yihua, director-general of the Automation Society of Guangdong Province.
Just as the onus is on authorities to train staff to operate robots, Liu stresses that it is the responsibility of the government, colleges and companies to work together to cultivate personnel to design and produce the technology.
"China trails other countries in application of industrial robots in terms of the usage density, so there is huge market potential to be tapped," said Wu Xinyu.