Will China Replace its Manufacturing Labor Force with Robots?

China is dealing with Israeli robotics manufacturers to become “world manufacturing power” by 2025.

China plans to have its factories automated to become a “world manufacturing power” by 2025.

This goal was already laid out in the country’s “Made in China 2025” program announced earlier this year. This program aims to introduce green technology, connectivity and intelligence to manufacturing equipment. However, specific strategies to introduce robots were not mentioned.

Li Yuanchao, vice president of the People’s Republic of China, made an appearance at this year’s first World Robot Conference in Beijing. Yuanchao was reported to have “made it clear that robotics would [be] a major priority for the country’s economic future,” Will Knight wrote for the MIT Technology Review.

This may explain the recent deals between Chinese investors and the Israeli Robotics Association (IROB). On December 21, IROB signed a $20 million contract in Tel Aviv with investors from China’s Guangzhou province.

A Sino-Israeli Robotics Institute (SIRI) R&D center will be built in Guangzhou to meet the needs of China’s growing manufacturing sector. The SIRI R&D center will also have a counterpart in Israel where Chinese and Israeli researchers will develop technology to be mass produced in China.

China also plans to double per capita income by 2020 from 2016 levels with 6.5 percent annual growth or more.

Will Robots Steal Jobs from Chinese Workers?

Research and Markets released a report in March 2015 detailing predictions for the IT robotic automation market, worth US$183.1 million in 2013, to grow at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 60.5 percent from 2014 to 2020. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimates that China will account for more than one third of all industrial robots installed worldwide by 2018.

Knight wisely points out that not all manufacturing roles can be automated, quoting Tianran Wang, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. “Not all labor-intensive industry can be automated,” Tianran said. “We need hybrid automation.”

China is the world’s largest exporter for:

  • Electronic equipment (24.4 percent of total exports),
  • Machine equipment (17.1 percent) and
  • Furniture (4 percent), according to www.worldstopexports.com.

Introducing robotics into manufacturing in these industries could help eliminate low-skill labor positions.

As the Chinese economy evolves and wages rise, those who lose work to robots can be shifted to more meaningful roles. For example, these robots will need to be programmed, maintained and monitored by IT specialists.

Chinese robotics companies will no-doubt ride the surging wave of automation’s popularity in their country’s manufacturing sector as added demand will require more supply.

Will the largest importer of robots become the largest robotics-based manufacturer? Working with Israel on that SIRI R&D center may be the first step in that direction.

Knight quotes vice president Yuanchao, who said “China would like to welcome robot experts and entrepreneurs from all over the world to communicate and cooperate with us, in order to push forward the development of robot technology and industry.”

However, a darker spin may come from China’s history of labor rights violations, especially from companies like Hon Hai Precision Industry Comp, Ltd, whose subsidiary Foxconn is Apple’s largest product assembler.

It’s no secret that the company’s CEO, Gou Tai-ming (AKA Terry Gou) appears to have little respect for those he employs. An article by Dailytech.com states Gou was once quoted as saying “Hon Hai has a workforce of over one million worldwide and as human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”

The company has also been involved in cases of employee suicides.

The same article continues, “Reportedly a total of 14 employees killed themselves at Foxconn’s Apple-geared plant (in 2010)… Foxconn admitted to making many employees work 12 hours a day, six days a week. And some employees were reportedly working even longer – working up to 18 hours.”

Whether robotic automation serves to improve worker’s rights and working conditions in China is worth some speculation, but all we can do is wait and see.

Read Research and Markets’ report at www.researchandmarkets.com.