Amidst the 2008 global recession, many companies were able to remain in business by cutting jobs and then later automating many of those functions with technology. Although readily available automation and machine intelligence saw quite a few manufacturers through the challenging path of survival and then on the road to recovery, it wasn’t until recently that robots stepped to the fore. Suddenly, they are no longer a feasible plan for remaining in business, but a preferred strategy for engineering out the expensive human workforce.
Nowhere is this more evident than in China, where factories along the southern manufacturing belt in the Guangdong province are employing robots hand over fist—or end effector, if you prefer. Over the past three years, China has bought robots at a pace-setting clip to replace jobs in facilities with harsh or dangerous conditions that require excessive pay to coax employees to work there.
China’s working class has benefited from the country’s aggressive manufacturing and export policies, creating a middle class that no longer settles for low wages or unsafe working conditions. Hence, the Chinese government is pushing to eliminate a significant number of jobs with automation—namely, robotics. In fact, by year’s end, China is expected to surpass Japan as the world leader in number of robots in operation. And the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) predicts that China will employ one-third of the world’s robots by 2018.
Although the sheer number of robots is formidable, China and its population of 1.35 billion people barely merits a blip on the robotic-density radar, where the average is 66 units per 10,000 employees, according to IFR. South Korea has the highest density with 478 units, while China is 28th among industrial nations with just 36 units. The United States ranks seventh with 164 units per 10,000 employees. However, look for all of this to change dramatically over the next five years with the rise in digital communication and the improved ease of robotic integration and programming.
China is so intent upon amassing a robot workforce that Midea, a consumer electronics and appliance manufacturer in the Guangdong province, is now on the verge of acquiring a majority share of Kuka Robotics, one of Germany’s foremost suppliers.
Robots from Kuka already have replaced tens of thousands of workers at Midea; however, the Chinese government’s hand-in-glove involvement with its larger manufacturers should expand the role of Kuka not just within Midea, but across the entire country and even into global export markets. The move has drawn great speculation and caution, yet Midea’s acquisition of Voith’s 25% stake will put it in the driver’s seat.
Speaking of the driver’s seat, one of the ironic twists of the robotic revolution has been in the automotive industry, which is still the biggest user, according to the IFR. High-end luxury automobile manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi all have more than doubled their model offerings over the past 25 years, and this has spawned the replacement of robots with humans to keep up with the changing pace and flexibility required to fulfill these custom offerings.
But how long before that trend reverses and advanced algorithms allow plants to change engineering capacity on the fly?
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