Feeding the hungry dragon

China manufacturing is full of staggering numbers. But they are only the beginning of the story.

Napoleon famously said “Let China sleep, for when the dragon awakes, she will shake the world” over 200 years ago. By 1820 China was the world’s largest economy (in terms of global GDP), largely on exports like tea, silk and minerals. This was coincidently also the time of the world’s first industrial revolution, when steam and water driven mechanical production were reshaping industry.

Today – against the backdrop of the fourth industrial revolution – China is once again the awakened dragon that is shaking the world. Since its major reforms in 1978, China’s GDP has multiplied tenfold. Although its growth rates are slowing to ‘the new normal,’ China is still the world’s second largest economy and could become the largest in the next few years, according to the IMF[i].

I first came to China in 2005 to help build ABB’s Robotics business in Shanghai. It has been a personal pleasure for me to see the strong adoption of robots in many facets of Chinese industry, from high-end electronics to food and beverage and automotive manufacturing. From humble beginnings as an early bird here in 1994, ABB Robotics in China has grown by a factor of 50 and we now employ over 1,600 people across 20 locations.

Recently at the China International Industrial Fair (CIIF), we had the honor of celebrating a huge milestone – we have now produced 50,000 robots in China. Appropriately this went to BYD Electronics, a company that exemplifies the new face of China industry – innovative, intelligent and safe manufacturing.

The robot – an IRB 1200 – will help BYD machine, polish and assemble mobile phones. China has a staggering 1.3 billion mobile phone users – that is around four times the entire population of the United States!

Charting a clear course

China is taking huge strides to upgrade its manufacturing through the increased adoption of robots as part of the Made in China 2025 initiative. The robots are intended to help make China one of the world’s top manufacturing nations in terms of quality and productivity, and to offset rising labor costs and a growing shortage of skilled talent.

The country is currently 28th in the world in terms of robot density – the number of robots per 10,000 employees. Its dramatic ambitions are to be a global leader in robot density in less than five years, with over 150 robots per 10,000 employees. Made in China 2025’s goals however do not depend purely on robot numbers – innovation is also greatly needed in how these new legions of robots will be used.

This means new concepts such as collaborative automation that shatter old limits of what we can and cannot automate, and simplification to remove entry barriers for a whole new generation of robot users: intuitive tools that allow smaller businesses to program and install a robot in minutes.

Robots, in addition, are also no longer stand alone components – they are part of an integrated, digital manufacturing ecosystem. This dimension of the fourth industrial revolution will change the world even more than mechanical power did during the first industrial revolution, and it is why advanced information technology is also a Made in China 2025 priority.

Finally I am very pleased to see that increasing safety is high on the agenda. This is an important topic for ABB, one of our core values in fact, and I had the privilege of discussing how robots can enhance safety during the CEO Roundtable at the 5th China Robot Industrial Summit during CIIF.

Today’s knowledge-based workers don’t want jobs that are dangerous, dirty, delicate or dusty. They want to have a safe work environment and to add value in the best way people can – with their minds.

ABB is proud to be walking step-by-step with China on this journey towards 2025, and we look ahead with great optimism for how manufacturing will change here in coming years.


[i]International Monetary Fund (IMF) World Economic Outlook report, October 2012

Image by Rene Mensen is licensed under Creative Commons by SA 3.0

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About the author

Per Vegard Nerseth

As the Head of the Robotics Business Unit at ABB, Per Vegard is deep into the world of automation. Since he joined ABB in 2000, he has seen the robotics industry change quite dramatically—from some very high points to low points during tough economic times and then back again, his experience straddles it all.
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