China’s production lines: Meet your new colleague – a robot

Manufacturing robot by ABB

Manufacturing robot by ABB

The traditional view of Chinese manufacturing is of giant factories full of low-paid workers producing goods that Western countries just can’t produce quite as cheaply any more.

And that view was correct… one upon a time. But a lot of cheap manufacturing has moved to other countries as wages in China rise along with educational standards, and the country’s one-child policy means a diminishing number of younger workers.

But China is still a major destination for manufacturing, so what’s taken up the slack? Robots, it seems.

The Wall Street Journal today said that China had already become the biggest buyer of industrial robots by 2013, with about a quarter of global sales, and its purchases are set to double by 2018. Chinese companies are also buying the firms that make the robots, such as Germany’s Kuka.

Traditional Chinese manufacturing

Traditional Chinese manufacturing

Those companies are now making robots that can not only put together a car or other products of heavy industry, but that can sew seams on relatively fiddly pieces of fabric, can put together small items like watches, add arms to sunglasses or screw caps on bottles of shower gel.

Switzerland’s ABB even introduced a two-armed version of its lightweight YuMi robot last year that can work with small items and can also share a manufacturing line with humans without the need for a protective cage.

Skynet robotNot sure what it does for worker morale as it must suppress the opportunity for conversation (modern robots haven’t quite yet reach Bender-like levels of eloquence). But with robots not taking tea breaks, they must be increasingly attractive to factory operators, despite high initial costs.

ABB’s head of sales and marketing, Steven Wyatt, told WSJ that China originally started automating due to concerns over the quality of the goods it manufactures but now it’s doing so just because it can’t get enough living, breathing workers.

So next time you buy a watch, a pair of jeans, some trainers or a beauty product that’s made in China, it might just have been put together by a robot.

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