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China 2.0

The Problem With China's Giant Robot Ambitions

Beijing wants to control nearly half the world's robot production by 2020, but the plans to get there have some fundamental flaws. There may still be time to reprogram it all.

In October, at China's Robot Competition in Hefei
In October, at China's Robot Competition in Hefei
Sun Chunyan

BEIJING — The Chinese government wants the country to transition from a "manufacturing giant" to a "manufacturing power," and in no industry is that ambition clearer than robotics.

China's Ministry of Industry has announced a five-year plan to promote the sector, including the formulation of a robot industry technological roadmap. The goal is ultimately to grasp a 45% share of the world’s high-end robot market by 2020.

Earlier this year President Xi Jinping mentioned in a speech that the "Robot Revolution" is expected to become an entry point as well as an important growth vector of the "Third Industrial Revolution," with a vast impact on the global manufacturing landscape. Internationally, he reckoned, a robot war has started, with both the United States and European Union having both put forward their own robot programs.

Following Xi’s speech, a variety of robot industry studies and promotional symposia were launched, including a meeting this month in the southeastern city of Xiamen presided over by the Ministry of Industry. Amongst the initiatives addressed was the establishment of a special fund, strengthening the brand recognition of Chinese robots, and improved customer service and marketing.

It is clear that the Chinese government sees building China’s own domestic robot sector as the first step in fulfilling its ambitions. As of 2013, 87% of China’s industrial robot market is carved up among several major foreign robot giants. Strictly speaking, China doesn’t yet have a robot industry, which means the challenges are matched only by the opportunities that could come from diving into the market.

On one hand, the industry has enormous potential — China is the world’s largest robot market. On the other, there exists a massive and largely unregulated low-end market in China. Over the past three years, even before Chinese authorities had announced their plans, a "robot industry spree" had already taken off.

Empty parks

But it has produced a risky situation of "false prosperity," where key core technologies sectors still must be broken into by Chinese manufacturers, even as foreign companies are actively pursuing the Chinese market.

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In a Chinese factory. Photo: Cory M. Grenier

The symptom of this frenzy is embodied in the robot industrial parks that seem to have sprung up in every corner of China. In the last couple of years, as many as 40 so-called robotic parks have mushroomed partly due to local authorities boasting of the political benefits of these structures.

Even third and fourth-tier cities such as Fushun, Jinjiang and Nantong have such industrial parks, even though very few of them are turning out top-shelf products or profitable businesses. Often, once the robot park is opened, it is soon deserted, failing to attract enough firms to move in.

Eventually, local authorities are obliged to try to lure the sector's foreign giants, such as Germany’s KUKA, Japan’s Kawasaki and Sweden’s ABB, offering them preferential treatment such as free land or free manufacturing plants. Instead of supporting domestic brands, the measures actually accelerate the entrance of foreign firms’ into China.

Relevant central Chinese departments have noticed this vicious circle. Wang Weiming, deputy director of the Industrial Equipment Department of the Industry Ministry, expressed his concern over repeated rushed investments by China’s various local governments.

On top of the misguided public policy, China’s domestic brands are a mixed bag and the low-end market tends to be completely disorderly. Most of these low-end robot companies are located in the south. They are small and feisty, yet have great difficulty in competing with the foreign giants.

In addition, China still depends on imports for key components such as reduction gear and motors that leave the industry itself far from self-sufficient.

Certain industry insiders worry that under the government’s control, the robot industry will follow the path of China’s failed attempts to compete in the wind power and solar energy industries. Understanding failure can be the smartest path to success.

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