A Robot Revolution, This Time in China
By KEITH BRADSHERMAY 12, 2017
HANGZHOU, China — Even a decade ago, car manufacturing in China was still a fairly low-tech, labor-intensive endeavor. Thousands of workers in a factory, earning little more than $1 an hour, performed highly repetitive tasks, while just a handful of industrial robots dotted factory floors.
At Ford’s newest car assembly plant in Hangzhou in east-central China, at least 650 robots, resembling huge, white-necked vultures, bob and weave to assemble the steel structures of utility vehicles and midsize sedans. Workers in blue uniforms and helmets still do some of the welding, but much of the process has been automated.
The state-of-the-art factory exemplifies the vast transformation that has taken place across manufacturing in China. General Motors opened a similarly ultra-modern Cadillac factory in the eastern suburbs of Shanghai, as well as one in Wuhan. Other automakers are also pouring billions of dollars into China, now the world’s largest auto market.
Robots are critical to China’s economic ambitions, as Chinese companies look to move up the manufacturing chain. The Ford assembly plant is across the street from a robot-producing factory owned by Kuka, the big German manufacturer of industrial robots that a Chinese company bought last summer.
For carmakers, the reliance on robots is driven partly by cost. Blue-collar wages have soared because multinational companies have moved much of their production to China even as its labor force is rapidly changing. The combination of the one-child policy, which cut the birth rate through the 1980s and ’90s, and an eightfold increase in college enrollments has cut by more than half the number of people entering the work force each year who have less than a high school degree and may be willing to consider factory work.
Blue-collar wages are now $4 to $6 an hour in large, prosperous cities, though still far lower than in the United States.
Automation is also a competitive necessity. As carmakers jockey for customers’ attention, they have no choice but to deploy the latest technologies, even in research and development. The challenge is how to keep a competitive edge, while trying to prevent intellectual property from being copied quickly by Chinese rivals.
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