By Li Xuena, Wang Xinci and Zhang Boling
BEIJING ( Caixin Online ) — Every day, two quality-control supervisors monitor four robots tirelessly assembling remote-control devices for home appliances at a Midea Group /zigman2/quotes/207665926/delayed CN:000333 -3.20% factory in Foshan, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.
The robots recently replaced 14 workers on the plant’s assembly line for remote controls. And soon, according to Midea’s home-air-conditioner division deputy general manager Wu Shoubao, more robots will arrive to replace the quality-control supervisors.
Midea, a major appliance maker, is in the forefront of a full-blown charge by China’s manufacturing sector into robot-powered factory automation. Companies nationwide over the past five years have ramped up robotics in the face of labor woes, such as worker shortages and rising wages, and to cut their production costs. In the process, they’ve helped build a new market for Chinese robot manufacturers that are competing against multinational rivals.
Labor shortages are partly linked to what Wu says are changing attitudes among young workers. Young adults historically formed the backbone of the country’s assembly-line workforce, but he said many born between 1990 and 1999 now shun manufacturing jobs for other pursuits.
The working-age population — defined as those between ages 16 and 59 — is slowly declining. The National Bureau of Statistics said this age group’s population fell by 371,000 in 2013 to about 915 million last year.
Moreover, companies looking for inexpensive labor in Asia are no longer focusing on basing plants in China alone, as labor costs in many other countries are far lower. The International Labor Organization says an average worker’s monthly wage is the equivalent of 911 yuan ($145) in Vietnam and 603 yuan ($96) in Cambodia, for example, but 3,483 yuan ($555) in China.
Midea’s automation push got under way in 2011, just as Guangdong-area manufacturers were starting to grapple with labor dilemmas including worker shortages and high turnover. The company imposed a hiring freeze and then implemented a policy requiring that divisions with high turnover install automated systems.
The transformation is continuing today at Midea. Its residential air-conditioner division, for example, plans to cut 6,000 of its 30,000 workers by the end of 2015, and another 4,000 by 2018.
Midea invested 800 million yuan between 2011 and last year to install automated systems with some 800 robots. It plans to spend up to 900 million yuan to add another 600 robots this year.
Not only are robots helping Midea resolve labor issues, Wu said, but they’re also improving production and product quality.
The International Federation of Robotics (IFR), which represents robot manufacturers and research institutes, said China last year surpassed Japan to become the world’s biggest market for industrial robots. Some 200,000 were operating in China at the end of 2014, the IFR said, with 32,000 installed in 2013 alone, accounting for 20% of worldwide installations that year.
The robot-to-worker ratio in the country is still relatively low, the IFR said, with 30 robots working in manufacturing plants per 10,000 employees. Japan’s ratio is 11 times higher.
Four multinational companies — Switzerland’s ABB Group /zigman2/quotes/201477239/delayed CH:ABBN +0.23% , Japan’s Fanuc Corp. /zigman2/quotes/202054799/delayed JP:6954 +1.15% /zigman2/quotes/206262686/delayed FANUF +1.83% and Yaskawa Electric Corp. /zigman2/quotes/208656789/delayed JP:6506 +0.77% , and Germany’s Kuka Robotics /zigman2/quotes/209879451/delayed DE:KU2 +2.28% — are the dominant suppliers of robotic systems for factories in China. Mir Industry, a Chinese industrial consultancy, said the four account for about 58% of the nationwide market.
Zhang Hui, general manager of the ABB Small Parts Assembly Center in China, which services robot clients, said his company spent years focusing on the world’s developed countries but now works to win clients in emerging markets with total-solution packages.
“In emerging markets such as China, we provide our clients with more solutions than products,” Zhang said.
Meanwhile, domestic robot makers are vying for a bigger piece of the action. One up-and-coming company is Foshan Xinpeng Robotics Technology Co., most of whose clients are bathroom-tile and ceramics manufacturers.