Internet & Tech

Men of steel

Are Chinese manufacturers ready for the robot revolution?

Robots deliver dishes to customers at a Robot Restaurant in Harbin

Serving humanity: robotic waiters in a Harbin restaurant

Robots were in the news last week when photos of a bowing droid went viral on the internet. The reason? The lifesize machine looked strikingly similar to Japanese leader Abe Shinzo, and he appeared to be apologising. This got headlines because Beijing has repeatedly asked the real Abe to apologise for Japan’s wartime atrocities.

The Abe lookalike was a star attraction at this year’s China International Robot Show, which was held in Shanghai. Its maker Shanghai Jinghong Robot was coy about the controversy, telling the Global Times: “It’s just a way to attract attention from visitors and with absolutely no political implication.”

That wasn’t the only reason there was a buzz at this year’s show. In mid-May the government released a policy document Made in China 2025, which clearly set out its intentions to lead the world in robotic development.

The country’s investor base had an all too human reaction to the report, pushing any stock with robotic potential limit-up. Shenzhen-listed Shenyang Blue Silver Industry Automation jumped 44% in a week. Hubei SanFeng Intelligent Conveying Equipment quadrupled in the space of a few months. The country’s first listed robot maker, Siasun Robot and Automation, also doubled at one point this year.

Obviously some of this euphoria evaporated when the stock market began its plunge last month. Meanwhile Southern Weekly has examined just how advanced China’s robotic industry really is. It quotes one unnamed expert who worries investors are jumping ahead of themselves at an even faster rate than computers are speeding up.

“Many listed companies are

buying robotics businesses simply to ramp up their share prices,” an

insider tells the Guangzhou-basednewspaper. “They don’t really understand what to do with these businesses and we’re worried the fallout will devastate China’s robotic industry.”

Southern Weekly also suggests that while Chinese purchases of robotic equipment lead the world, they mask an important failing. Of the 56,000 industrial robots sold in the country during 2014, only 16,000 came from local suppliers.

The vast majority of Chinese companies are involved in the low-margin downstream segment responsible for system integration. Some are competitive in the mid-stream sector configuring control boxes. But nearly all the upstream companies producing core components and control boxes are foreign.

There are also suggestions that Chinese robots do not have as much staying power.

During the recent National Robotics Development Forum one expert claimed Chinese robots last about 8,000 hours compared to foreign robots’ 50,000 to 100,000 hours.

Yin Rongzhao, founder of Guangdong Bo Langte Intelligent Equipment dismisses this out of hand. He tells Southern Weekly that if that were so his robots would be failing before the end of their warranty period. “If that’s the case how come I haven’t gone bust,” he replies.

Bo Langte was the first company to register on NEEQ, an over-the-counter equities exchange. In 2014 it recorded revenues of Rmb83 million ($14 million). This makes Bo Langte 18 times smaller than Siasuan, which is in turn 17 times smaller than Japanese robotic giant Fanuc.

But Yin has big dreams. As Southern Weekly notes, his office wall-chart projects revenues of Rmb10 billion in 2026, Rmb100 billion in 2033 and Rmb1 trillion in 2058.

“People think I’m mad, but they thought the same thing about Jack Ma,” he retorts. “What if I realise my dream too?”

Yin says it is getting much easier to sell robots because they have become progressively cheaper relative to human labour. A decade ago, an industrial robot retailed for about Rmb75,000 while a worker cost about Rmb800 per month. Now a robot costs about Rmb35,000 while a worker costs more than Rmb4,000 a month.

Writing in the New York Times, Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, worries about what this means for China’s ability to keep its citizens in jobs. “China could well turn out to be ground zero for the economic and social disruption brought about by the rise of the robots,” he concludes.

The China Daily last month ran a large feature looking at just this topic. It spoke to manufacturers who were realising efficiencies – and shedding jobs – via robotics. “Using 60 industrial robots on a single assembly line, which would have included about 600 workers in the past, now needs just 100,” said Luo Weiqiang, assistant general manager of Guangdong Everwin Precision Technology, a maker of electronics components.

Chen Yaohua, chairman of the Dongguan Association of the Textile and Garment Industry, concurred: “By introducing this robotic technology in different workshops, a medium-sized factory can bring down its workforce from 1,200 to 800. They can also help prevent material waste and increase manufacturing accuracy.”

In China’s case this technological evolution could be more complex – eliminating some jobs, but also helping manufacturers in places like the Pearl River Delta to cope with worker shortages as the number of migrant workers recedes.

Still, there are some who think we are on the cusp of a new industrial revolution, perhaps more significant than that which occurred in Britain in the late 1700s.

The US inventor and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil has famously predicted that by 2030 computers will be able to replicate the 10,000 trillion electrical signals that flash each second through the 22 billion neurons in a human brain. Their storage capacity will no longer be measured in gigabytes, but will equal the 10 trillion memories we each hold.

For some that is a scary prospect, but others believe robots still have a very long way to go before they threaten to outmatch human intelligence. In early June, the US Department of Defence held a competition for disaster response robots, simulating conditions akin to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. The robots only had intermittent contact with their operators and had to complete a number of tasks including driving an all-terrain vehicle around obstacles, opening a door, turning a valve and cutting a hole in a wall.

The South Korean team won, perhaps not surprisingly given the country has the highest population of industrial robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers (437) compared to China’s 30. All the same the Washington Post concluded the robots looked as “menacing as the Terminator, but were often ridiculous – stumbling, bumbling and teetering over like babies learning to walk”. The BBC says a Chinese team had meant to enter the US competition but could not get their visas in time.

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