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How China is shaping its smart future through robotics

How China is shaping its smart future through robotics

Amid the export boom triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, China is pushing ahead with plans for a smarter future. The second largest economic power in the world has laid out a five-year plan for robotics and smart manufacturing, vowing to double manufacturing robot density and help large manufacturers to achieve digitalization by 2025.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has set the goal to build 500 demonstration manufacturing facilities and to cultivate at least 150 smart-manufacturing-solution providers nationwide by 2025. At the same time, the ambitious plan envisages that more than 70% of large-scale Chinese enterprises will be digitised by then.

With its new plan the government is aiming to drive adoption of commercialized service robotics in key sectors including automobile, aerospace, railway, logistics, and mining. According to MIIT, the operating income from Chinese robotics market is projected to expand at an average of 20% between 2021 and 2025.

The recently announced plan also vows to strengthen research on key technologies like 5G, big data, edge computing and artificial intelligence. It further aims to establish three to five robotics industry zones and double the intensity of robot manufacturing.

Robotics target hit early

Already back in 2015, China had set ambitions of making 260,000 industrial robots per year by 2025. This goal was hit four years early, when 268,694 units were produced in the first three quarters of 2021 alone.

Between 2016 and 2020 the robotics sector in China grew rapidly, at an average annual growth rate of 15%. The output of Chinese industrial robots increased from 72,000 units in 2016 to 212,000 units in 2020, according to the data by National Bureau of Statistics. And in the first 11 months of 2021, the cumulative output of industrial robots in China rose 49% on a yearly basis to 330,000 units.

Meanwhile, service and special robot manufacturers in China registered revenue of about $8.21 b last year, growing 41% on a yearly basis. Furthermore, 316 robotics projects spanned across industries such as medicine, industrial, warehousing and service, received more than $5.1 b in combined financing.

The national desire to upgrade Chinese manufacturing has also resulted in the birth of numerous start-ups. Dongguan, in Guangdong province in southern China, which was earlier called “the world’s factory” is now known the “Silicon Valley of robotics start-ups”. In the past five years, the city has attracted hundreds of new and established robotics companies. According to market research company Forward Intelligence, Guangdong has the most robotics companies and robotics industrial parks among all Chinese provinces.

Similarly, another robotic hot bed is Beijing Economic-Technological Development Area. It became a world-class platform for robot technology innovation and industrial cooperation, that hosts more than 100 robot enterprises.

Robots to reach “leading international standards”

However, in terms of robot density (the number of robot units per 10,000 employees) China is still behind other Asian economies. According to a report from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), China ranked ninth with 246 industrial robots per 10,000 population in 2020. The rank was up from 15th position in 2019 and from 25th in 2015.

In comparison, South Korea is leading wordwide with 932 units, followed by Singapore (605) and Japan (390). “The development of robot density in China is the most dynamic worldwide, due to the significant growth of robot installations,” the report stated. Overall, China led the list with installation of 168,400 industrial robots in 2020, accounting for 44% of installations worldwide.

Besides ramping up robot density, there are other issues to be address in order to shape China’s smart future of manufacturing. According to MIIT official Wang Weiming, there are still gaps in the robotics sector, so that the quality, stability and reliability of key components cannot meet the needs of high-performance complete machines. Thus, China’s new plan calls for the quality of complete robots and key components to “reach leading international standards”.

According to Zhang Xiaorong, director of the Beijing-based Cutting-Edge Technology Research Institute, China needs to catch up in software and industrial infrastructure.

“The industrial software, operating systems and equipment used in China are mainly from foreign brands. Foreign countries are advanced in related hardware and all kinds of production tools. China is lagging behind in core components like chips,” Zhang told the Global Times.