China is laying the groundwork for a robot revolution by planning to automate the work currently done by millions of low-paid workers.
The government’s plan will be crucial to a broader effort to reform China’s economy while also meeting the ambitious production goals laid out in its latest economic blueprint, which aims to double per capita income by 2020 from 2016 levels with at least 6.5 percent annual growth. The success of this effort could, in turn, affect the vitality of the global economy.
President Xi Jinping has made it clear that robotics would be a major priority for the country’s economic future.
Many of the robots on show at the World Robotics conference in Beijing’s exhibition hall were service or entertainment robots such as automated vacuum cleaners, cheap drones, or quirky looking machines designed to serve as personal companions. But there were also many industrial robots that signaled the real impetus for China’s robot push: its manufacturing sector.
China is already the world’s largest producer of everything from clothes to electronics, but much of it depends on low-cost, low-skill labor. And even as economic growth has slowed, wages continue to rise across the country as the economy evolves. The Chinese government is also eager to see its workforce diversify and its manufacturing industries become more technologically advanced.
The scale of this robot revolution could be enormous. Two years ago China became the world’s largest importer of robots, and the International Federation of Robotics, an industry group, estimates that China will account for more than a third of all industrial robots installed worldwide by 2018. Yet the number of robots per worker in China is far lower than in many industrially advanced countries, indicating a huge potential for growth.
China may soon become not only an important market for more advanced robotic technology, but a producer of more advanced robot systems itself. Many international robot makers were present at the Beijing conference, including the German giant Kuka and the Swiss company ABB. But dozens of Chinese robot companies were also present, including some companies that have only been around for a few years.
There are five major markets representing 70% of the total sales volume in 2014: China, Japan, the United States, the Republic of Korea and Germany.
57,096 industrial robots were sold in 2014 in China, 56% more than in 2013. Thereof, Chinese robot suppliers installed about 16,000 units according to the information from the China Robot Industry Alliance (CRIA). Their sales volume was about 78% higher than in 2013. This was partly due to an increasing number of companies that reported their sales data for the first time in 2014. Foreign robot suppliers increased their sales by 49% to 41,100 units, including robots produced by international robot suppliers in China. China, by far the biggest market for industrial robots, is also the fastest growing market worldwide. This rapid development is unique in the history of robotics. There has never been such dynamic rise in such a short period of time in any other market. A wide range of industries have been increasingly investing in automation. Between 2010 and 2014, total supply of industrial robots increased by about 40% per year on average.
Almost 29,300 industrial robots (+17%) were sold to Japan reaching the highest sales level in that country since 2008. Since 2013, Japan is the second largest market regarding annual sales
Worldwide operational stock of industrial robots increased again considerably in 2014
The total worldwide stock of operational industrial robots at the end of 2014 increased by 11% to about 1.5 million units. Since 2010, the stock has been increasing considerably.
Value of the global market was up to US$10.7 billion
In 2014, the sales value increased by 13% to a new peak at US$10.7 billion. It should be noted that the figures cited above generally do not include the cost of software, peripherals and systems engineering. Including the mentioned costs might result in the actual robotic systems? market value to be about three times as high. The worldwide market value for robot systems in 2014 is therefore estimated to be US$32 billion.
The most automated markets are the Republic of Korea, Japan and Germany. In 2014, the Republic of Korea had again the highest robot density in the world by far due to continued installation of a large volume of robots in recent years. 478 industrial robots were in operation in 2014 per 10,000 employees. The robot density in Japan further decreased to 314 units, and in Germany it continued to increase to 292 units. The United States which is one of the five the biggest robot markets regarding annual supply has a robot density of 164 units in 2014. The robot density in China, the biggest robot market since 2013, reached 36 units in 2014 unveiling the huge potential for robot installations in this market.
If China matched South Koreas 2014 robot density (478 robots per 10,000 employees) then China would have 4.8 million industrial robots.
If China matched South Koreas projected 2018 robot density (700 robots per 10,000 employees) then China would have 7.5 million industrial robots.
If China matched South Koreas projected 2023 robot density (1000 robots per 10,000 employees) then China would have 11 million industrial robots.
If China's entire industry matched Japan's Automotive industry 2014 robot density (1400 robots per 10,000 employees) then China would have 15 million industrial robots.
SOURCES International Federation of Robotics, Technology Review