Rethink Robotics Baxter at work on the line Rethink Robotics

As China Moves from Volume to Value, So Do Robots

China has given itself 10 years to become a global manufacturing leader. As the country strives to reach that lofty goal, automation and robotics will be key to its success.

The news of the Chinese government’s Made in China 2025 initiative has been met with a wide range of responses. There are those who say that there are too many obstacles in the way of this ambitious plan. Others say that the entry of China into the global manufacturing market as a player that offers more than low-cost labor is a positive step toward creating a truly global competitive market.

Regardless of long-term and lasting implications, at least one thing is certain: The robotics industry will never be the same. Just as China seeks to – in the words of Premier Li Keqiang – “upgrade China from a manufacturer of quantity to one of quality,” so, too, will industrial robots move from being solely for volume output to an integral piece of the production value chain.

The Race to Elevate Manufacturing

The Chinese government is in good company when it comes to advocating and investing in the vision for a new industrial revolution. The Chinese government plans to spend more than 8 trillion yuan (nearly $1.3 billion) over 10 years on its Made in China 2025 initiative, focusing on 10 sectors ranging from agricultural and electrical equipment to transportation equipment and medical devices. Germany launched Industry 4.0 in 2013 and is expected to invest 1.35 trillion Euros (nearly $1.5 trillion) over 15 years on transforming its manufacturing base. In 2014, the U.S. Congress passed a bill authorizing $1 billion for the establishment of a 15-node National Network of Manufacturing Innovation, designed to accelerate the development and delivery of advanced manufacturing technologies.

What’s behind this race to elevate manufacturing? Manufacturing is the single most effective way to spur an economy. In the U.S., every $1 spent in final sales of manufactured products supports $1.33 in output from other sectors. Building an economy based on factories of the future, where people work on value creation and innovation and machines do the rest, is a powerful engine for any nation.

The Diminishing Role of Low-Cost Labor Models

There’s no doubt that, for decades, China was able to supply the world with inexpensive, low-quality clothing, toys and other goods on the backs of low-paid workers. Now, rising wages in China and competitive pressures on low-cost labor from other regions, including South America and Eastern Europe, are at the heart of the rationale behind the Made in China 2025 plan. 

At the same time, U.S. and European manufacturers have come to realize that it’s simply no longer viable to compete by chasing low-cost labor. Rising wages, combined with a volatile global economy, increasing product complexity and changes in consumer expectations around customization for everything from cell phones to luxury vehicles are forcing manufacturers to rethink supply chains and find ways to tighten the gap between innovation and product delivery.

The Digitization of Manufacturing Changes Everything

In April 2012, The Economist wrote about the Third Industrial Revolution, where manufacturing moved from mass production to mass customization. In the factories of the future, the authors wrote, 3-D printing, more dexterous robots and a range of Web-based services would make it possible for manufacturers to be able to respond quickly to changes in demand and deliver smaller lots tweaked with customer preferences. It’s these types of operations – flexible, highly responsive to shifts in economic conditions and consumer demand, and driven to continuous improvement – that China, the United States, Germany and other industrialized nations are seeking to design, build and operate.

Enter the Smart, Collaborative Robot

What does all this mean for industrial automation – and, more specifically, for industrial robots?

For decades, robots have been an embedded part of the manufacturing landscape. Big, immovable, expensive and able to perform highly repetitive tasks involving heavy objects, these robots were designed to lower the cost of manufacturing and increase productivity. And they have for many industries. But manufacturing has changed significantly and is no longer solely about building millions of units, all exactly the same.

Today, lines are likely to be reconfigured from shift to shift. In contract manufacturing environments, which produce nearly 100% of electronic goods, different products are created in the same operation. In distribution centers, where consumer goods products are packaged for delivery to retail outlets, the tasks change based on the latest promotional campaigns. In these environments, fixed robots are not up to the challenge of “different day, different task.” For a fixed robot to perform a task significantly different than the one it was first designed to perform would require weeks or months of reprogramming and reconfiguring, significant investment and a technician trained in robotics programming.

What’s needed and what will ensure that China – and any other nation pursuing the vision of the factory of the future – will reap the rewards of digitized manufacturing is a new breed of smart, collaborative robot. The market for these robots has been estimated to surpass $3 billion by 2020, and China’s ambitious Made in China 2025 campaign will indeed be a force behind this expansion.

Collaborative robots bring more to manufacturing than just being safe enough to work alongside humans. China’s vision to replace human workers with robots depends solely on the ability of robots to perform tasks as humans do. That means that robots must be able to perform:

  • More than a single task, and be able to shift between tasks without additional programming.
  • Increasingly dexterous tasks.
  • Without interruption in the face of the variability inherent in today’s manufacturing environments.

Robots are Changing the Face of Manufacturing Today

Advances in robotics technology have paved the way for a new breed of robot that delivers entirely new ways of performing the 90% of physical tasks that have been outside the reach of traditional robots. These collaborative robots are already being deployed by world-class manufacturers in electronics, industrial equipment and white goods, as well as by innovative players in sheet metal fabrication, home furnishings and plastics.

These innovations, combined with the visions articulated in the Made in China 2025 plan, Germany’s Industry 4.0 initiative and other efforts around the world make it more exciting than ever to be in manufacturing and industrial robotics. This future holds great promise for revitalizing manufacturing anywhere in the world.

Jim Lawton is the chief product and marketing officer at Boston-based Rethink Robotics, which developed the Baxter and Sawyer collaborative robots. The company helps manufacturers meet the challenges of an agile economy with an integrated workforce, combining trainable, safe and cost-effective robots with skilled labor.

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