How China plans to become a leader in robotics

With rapid economic development in the past 20 years, China urgently feels the need to move from a manufacturing-driven to an innovation-driven economy. As a result, the state is supporting many bold research initiatives to develop and attract highly skilled individuals who will be needed to lead this transition. Thanks to recent dramatic developments in hardware and software, economists anticipate that the Chinese robotics industry will meet its spring season this year.
China’s Five Year Plan establishes the core concept of development in all areas of society. In 2011, China started its 12th Five Year Plan, and for the first time ever, the service robot was identified as an important area for development. It is anticipated that many new Chinese robotics companies will emerge in the near future to meet the growth targets set out in the plan.
However, due to the economic crisis, the situation is changing subtly. I travelled around several main cities in China in early 2013 to learn from experts in the current automation industry, and it was apparent that because the new generation of Chinese workers ask for higher pay and lower workloads, it is very difficult for China’s massive manufacturing industry to recruit new workers. Not surprisingly, leading foreign industrial robot companies, such as Kuka, ABB and Fanuc are taking advantage of this problem to market their robots to the manufacturing sector.
Local companies are likewise developing Chinese industrial robots that may have relatively low performance, but which are nonetheless able to meet industrial requirements. One such example is the Million Robots Project from the Chinese electronics manufacturing giant Foxconn. While the industrial robot market is growing, however, service robots still remain the province of university labs and research institutes.