SHANGHAI, CHINA— While China may be known as the world's factory, rising labor costs have led to booming growth in automation for manufacturing and that is turning the country into the world's biggest purchaser of robots. Leading robotics manufacturers have come to Shanghai to cash in on this rapidly expanding business opportunity.
Robots have traditionally been used in heavy manufacturing, such as automobiles, but now their uses are widening as their capabilities expand.
Shunrin Mizutani, the CEO of Japanese robotics company Yaskawa in Shanghai, said that in addition to being used in the airline industry, some are used to make iPhones and other smart phones.
"Assembly that used to be done by hundreds of thousands of people is now done by robots," he said.
Rapid expansion of robotics
Yaskawa is one of several leading robotics manufacturers based in business-friendly Shanghai. Mizutani says that when his company started in China in 1996, they were only selling dozens of robots a year. Now that number is in the thousands.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, last year 23,000 units were sold in China, which it says is the most rapidly growing market in the world.
"In 2013, there was a rapid expansion in China's industrial robots market," said Wang Zhiliang, director of the Department of Internet Things at the University of Science and Technology in Beijing.
Wang said that while it has taken time for industries in China to warm up to automation, more and more industries are finding that robots not only boost quality, but can boost profits as well.
He noted that Shenyang Automation Institute, which focuses solely on robotics in China, already has orders for robots until 2015. He adds the key reason for that is the dramatic increase of labor costs in China in recent years.
Foxconn, one of China's largest private employers, has set a goal of adding one million robots by next year. And the trend is expanding even outside factory walls, Mizutani said.
"Right now we have some robots that are used in hospitals that can help with joint recovery or perform small procedures. These are not factory robots, they are called service robots," he said.
The development of service robots is a key focus of Wang’s work at the University of Science and Technology in Beijing.
There, along with a fleet of students, Wang is developing robots to help address one of China’s big social challenges, the rising numbers of elderly. He said what while robots can alert the elderly to take medications, not walk too far or remind them to go to sleep, there are still significant challenges.
"For example, the elderly need to have water poured in a glass for them, so the challenge is pretty big still for a robot to go from one place to the other and pick up the glass," he said. "Artificial intelligence technology is still the most difficult part."
Yaskawa’s Mizutani said his company is working on a concept robot that could help the elderly buy goods online, keep them company by conversing with them and even cook for them.
Even so, while robots can assemble iPhones and weld car frames, some simple tasks like fetching water are still an unconquered frontier for China’s robot workers.