With soaring wages and an aging population, electronics factory managers say the day is approaching when robotic workers will replace people on the Chinese factory floor.
A new wave of industrial robots is in development, ranging from high-end humanoid machines with vision, touch and even learning capabilities, to low-cost robots vying to undercut China’s minimum wage.
Photos: Swapping Laborers for Robots
Neil Wade for The Wall Street JournalA concept robot by Delta Electronics, which is among developers in Asia seeking to build better, cheaper robots.
Over the next five years these technologies will transform China’s factories, executives say, and also fill a growing labor shortage as the country’s youth become increasingly unwilling to perform manual labor. How the transformation plays out will also go a long way in deciding how much of the electronics supply chain remains in China.
It’s not just traditional robot makers like Zurich-based ABB GroupABBN.VX +0.46% and Germany’s KukaAG KU2.XE +1.82% pushing forward. Electronics suppliers in Asia such asDelta Electronics Inc. 2308.TW +0.69%and Foxconn Technology Group2354.TW +0.65% are also seeking to build a better robot, along with smaller players like Denmark’s Universal Robots A/S.
But some industry executives caution that China’s automation shift will likely take years and there are plenty of challenges, including the high price of advanced robots, continuing technical limitations and even the lack of flexibility that comes with bringing robots into the factory.
“If your orders decrease, you can lay off workers,” said Tim Li, senior vice president of Taiwanese PC contract manufacturer Quanta Computer Inc. “You can’t lay off robots.”
One of the newest companies in this field, Taiwanese firm Delta, has long made power adapters for brands like Apple Inc., AAPL -0.31% but last year it began a more ambitious project: to build robots cheap enough to replace human workers in China’s electronics factories.
“It’s clear that automation is the future trend in China, but the big question is how to bring down the costs for robots,” said Delta Chairman Yancey Hai in an interview. “We believe we can do that because we manufacture two-thirds of the components ourselves.”
Delta is testing a one-armed, four-jointed robot that can move objects, join components and complete similar tasks. By 2016, Delta hopes to sell a version for as little as $10,000, which would be less than half the cost of current mainstream robots.
That price is also cheaper than the salary of a Chinese worker, and the robot can work around the clock.
Delta believes it can achieve the low price through cost advantages at its Taiwan facility, in-house component production and a shorter target life span for its robot.
Outside Taiwan, there are also more futuristic robots in the works designed to be easily reprogrammable and smart enough to work alongside humans without risk of injury. For instance, ABB’s concept humanoid robot has two 7-jointed arms that perform precise tasks and halt when touched by a person.
These robots are more expensive than factory workers, but the cost gap is shrinking, with China’s wages rising by a double-digit percentage annually.
The advancements in robotics has led to hopes that electronics firms will bring some manufacturing back to the U.S. But industry followers say electronics assembly is likely to stay in China even as automation becomes easier because the larger component supply chain is in the country.
To be sure, robots have long been technically capable of the tasks required for final assembly: placing components on circuit boards, affixing circuit boards into casings, screwing together the casings and cleaning off the devices.
But human hands are still considerably cheaper for such jobs in China. People are also better at switching tasks than a robot, which requires reprogramming.
There are also logistical obstacles to automation.
Because of the short sales cycle of electronic devices, products are only in production for around 9 to 18 months, with production settings requiring change afterward, said ABB China Senior Vice President Chun-yuan Gu.
“There’s a fast ramp up and a fast ramp down, and that is the key challenge,” he said.
Even Foxconn, the industry’s loudest proponent of automation, continues to rely on city-sized factories where more than 1.1 million workers do the bulk of the assembly of iPhones and other devices by hand. Foxconn originally planned to install 1 million robotic arms in its factories by 2014, but executives said it would take much longer to reach that target.
Automation would help companies like Foxconn that are continually beset by criticism over worker conditions. Indeed, Pegatron Corp., 4938.TW +1.50%another Apple supplier that makes iPhones, was recently accused by New York-based nonprofit organization China Labor Watch for alleged labor rights violations.
The Taiwanese company is focusing its automation efforts on the most dangerous and laborious tasks, said Chief Financial Officer Charles Lin.
Pegatron has invested around $100 million in the past year to automate production of electronic device casings, which involves harsh chemicals.
Quanta, the world’s largest PC contract manufacturer, expects to make a massive automation shift in “the next two years or so” as labor costs rise, said Chief Financial Officer Elton Yang.
For robot makers like Kuka, that spells opportunity.
“Twenty percent of our business is in China and we see that rising,” said Kuka Chief Executive Till Reuter. He said Kuka is investing in a new Chinese factory that can churn out at least 5,000 more robots a year from 1,500 to 2,000 currently.
Universal Robots and ABB also said they’re boosting their China investment, and with good cause: China’s industrial robot shipments will rise to 35,000 units in 2015 from 26,000 in 2012, the largest increase of any country, according to estimates from the International Federation of Robotics. While robots are used in many different types of factories in China, analysts and robotics companies point out growing demand to automate the electronics supply chain is giving demand a decided boost.
Kuka’s Mr. Reuter says it’s easy to see how robots can give factories a helping hand. “We have industrial robots…which we work 24 hours a day, seven days a week for seven to 10 years,” he said.