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China Daily (USA) - - SHANGHAI - Con­tact the writ­ers at zhulixin@ chi­nadaily.com.cn and wang_ ying@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Man­u­fac­tur­ers have said that the re­place­ment of hu­mans with ro­bot­ics is bound to hap­pen, though the present economic slow­down has made some of them think twice be­fore do­ing so.

He­fei Meil­ing Group, a ma­jor home ap­pli­ances man­u­fac­turer based in He­fei city, cap­i­tal of East China’s An­hui prov­ince, has since years ago been plan­ning to in­stall more in­dus­trial ro­bots in its re­frig­er­a­tor plants lo­cated in the He­fei Economic & Tech­no­log­i­cal De­vel­op­ment Area (HETDA).

“Though we be­lieve the re­place­ment of hu­man work­ers will be in­evitable in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, we are con­tem­plat­ing if we should do it now when growth of the home ap­pli­ances sec­tor has been slow­ing down in re­cent years,” said Huang Da­nian, as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager of Meil­ing.

“We worry that the in­vest­ment re­cov­ery pe­riod might be too long,” said Huang.

In con­trast, Giti Tire (An­hui) Co Ltd has al­ready been ben­e­fit­ing from au­toma­tion. Yu Neng­gao, as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager of the com­pany, said that Giti Tire has even been in­creas­ing its in­vest­ments in ro­bots since a year ago.

The com­pany is ex­pected to in­vest more than 100 mil­lion yuan ($14.98 mil­lion) this year into fur­ther au­toma­tion up­grades.

He added that the ro­bots have also made it more ef­fi­cient and safe when trans­port­ing the big and heavy tire the an­nual cost of a ro­bot in China in 2014 prod­ucts around the plant.

“Ev­ery year in July through Septem­ber, many work­ers at the pro­duc­tion line quit since the tem­per­a­tures in some ar­eas of the plant can get re­ally high. As a re­sult, we’ve had to con­stantly em­ploy new work­ers,” ex­plained Liu Zhiyun, the hu­man re­source man­ager, about the com­pany’s de­ci­sion to em­brace au­toma­tion.

How­ever, de­spite the in­tro­duc­tion of ro­bots to the man­u­fac­tur­ing process, Giti Tire has not axed too many of their work­ers. In­stead, Liu said that em­ploy­ees who have had their jobs taken over by the ro­bots now work in other sec­tors of the plant.

While the pro­duc­tion ca­pac­ity has been steadily grow­ing, the num­ber of work­ers at the plant has al­ways been main­tained at around 4,000.

“Ro­bot­ics have also helped a lot in im­prov­ing the prod­uct qual­ity and this means that we can be­come more com­pet­i­tive in the mar­ket which has wit­nessed over­ca­pac­ity prob­lems in re­cent years,” said Yu.

China has since 2013 been the world’s largest in­dus­trial ro­bot mar­ket. In 2015, sales of ro­bots in China reached 68,459 units, up 18 per­cent year-on-year, said Song Xiao­gang, ex­ec­u­tive pres­i­dent and gen­eral sec­re­tary of China Ro­bot In­dus­try Al­liance (CRIA).

Lat­est data from the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Ro­bot­ics (IFR) in­di­cated that China’s ro­bot den­sity has also in­creased from 11 to 36 in the past five years. Ro­bot den­sity refers to the num­ber of mul­ti­pur­pose in­dus­trial ro­bots per 10,000 per­sons em­ployed in the man­u­fac­tur­ing, au­to­mo­tive or gen­eral in­dus­tries, ac­cord­ing to IFR.

An­dreas Bauer, chair­man of the ro­bot sup­pli­ers group of IFR, be­lieves that there is great po­ten­tial for fu­ture growth in the in­dus­try as China’s ro­bot den­sity is cur­rently about half of the global av­er­age.

How­ever, the com­pany with the world’s lead­ing ro­bot den­sity of 569 is ac­tu­ally Shanghai Highly (Group) Co Ltd, a com­pany that man­u­fac­tures air con­di­tion­ing com­pres­sors.

Over the past nine years, the com­pany has re­placed nearly 1,000 work­ers with 480 ro­bots.

“We dis­cov­ered that an av­er­age of 33 per­cent of our work­ers quit dur­ing the months of Fe­bru­ary and March, dur­ing our peak pro­duc­tion pe­ri­ods, and this has greatly af­fected our prod­uct qual­ity and man­u­fac­tur­ing safety,” Zheng Min, deputy gen­eral man­ager of Highly, was quoted as say­ing by ThePaper, a Shanghai me­dia out­let.

In 2007, Highly in­tro­duced their first ro­bot at an an­nual cost of 73,000 yuan — al­most dou­ble that of a hu­man worker (37,000 yuan) — at that time.

How­ever, labor costs have been in­creas­ing at an an­nual rate of 10 per­cent while the costs of ro­bots are drop­ping 5 per­cent year-onyear, re­sult­ing in the lat­ter be­com­ing cheaper than the for­mer by 2011.

By 2014, the an­nual cost of a ro­bot was just 56,000 yuan, in con­trast to 92,000 yuan for a hu­man worker.

The cen­tral govern­ment in April un­veiled a de­vel­op­ment plan for the ro­bot­ics in­dus­try, de­tail­ing ob­jec­tives that need to be achieved

Pis­sarides be­lieves that em­brac­ing ro­bot­ics does not nec­es­sar­ily mean there will be prob­lems with over­ca­pac­ity.

“Though it is grow­ing, China’s in­dus­trial pro­duc­tiv­ity is still very low. The ‘Made in China 2025’ strat­egy, which em­pha­sizes on au­toma­tion, will help to in­crease the pro­duc­tiv­ity sub­stan­tially,” said Pis­sarides dur­ing a speech in the He­fei-based University of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy of China in April.

The “Made in China 2025” strat­egy, which is fo­cused on the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, was un­veiled by the State Coun­cil in May 2015 and it is the first 10-year ac­tion plan de­signed to up­grade China’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties so that it can be­come a world man­u­fac­tur­ing power by 2025.

Fu Haibin, an of­fi­cial tasked with at­tract­ing in­vest­ments for HETDA, said many of the new man­u­fac­tur­ers in the zone al­ready use ro­bots for some of their pro­cesses, while the older com­pa­nies in HETDA are be­gin­ning to ac­knowl­edge the need for such tech­nol­ogy.

“There is no bet­ter time to em­brace ro­bot­ics than the present, since the process is in­evitable. The ear­lier they start the cam­paign, the bet­ter de­vel­op­ment chances they will have in the fu­ture,” said Pis­sarides dur­ing the speech in April.

The Harbin In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy Ro­bots Group (HRG), a lead­ing ro­bot­ics de­vel­oper in China, agrees with Pis­sarides’ sen­ti­ment.

The in­sti­tute an­nounced ear­lier this month that it will build a large ro­bot­ics hub in the zone, with to­tal in­vest­ments in the project pos­si­bly amount­ing to more than 2 bil­lion yuan in five years.

Yang Wei, head of HETDA, es­ti­mated that this project would add 10 bil­lion yuan a year to the value of pro­duc­tion by He­fei’s man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor.

The project will in­clude HRG’s eastern China head­quar­ters, a ro­bot man­u­fac­tur­ing plant and a re­search and de­vel­op­ment cen­ter for ro­botic tech­nolo­gies, said Han Jiecai, vice-pres­i­dent of the in­sti­tute.

“The in­dus­trial ro­bot­ics busi­ness will ac­count for one-third of our He­fei project. We be­lieve that the economic slow­down will ac­tu­ally be an op­por­tu­nity for HRG, as the coun­try is now seek­ing new growth driv­ers,” said Han.

GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

Com­pa­nies that have used ro­bots say they help boost prod­uct qual­ity, which in turn helps the or­ga­ni­za­tion be­come more com­pet­i­tive.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

He­fei Meil­ing Group, a ma­jor home ap­pli­ances man­u­fac­turer based in He­fei, An­hui prov­ince, has been plan­ning to in­stall more in­dus­trial ro­bots in its re­frig­er­a­tor plants but wor­ries the in­vest­ment re­cov­ery pe­riod might be too long.

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