By Tanya Powley in London
China, once the manual labour “workshop of the world”, has become the biggest buyer of industrial robots as rising wage costs and growing competition from emerging economies have forced manufacturers to turn to technology.
The country bought one in five robots sold globally in 2013, overtaking tech-savvy Japan for the first time, in its attempt to drive productivity gains.
China bought 36,560 industrial robots last year, a rise of almost 60 per cent against 2012, according to new figures from the International Federation of Robotics, a Germany-based industry group. Japan bought 26,015 robots in 2013, with the US in third place with 23,679.
“China has the fastest-growing robot market. In a few years’ time China will be significantly larger than the second- and third-largest robot market,” said Per Vegard Nerseth, head of robotics for ABB.
Robot sales to China have on average increased 36 per cent every year from 2008 to 2013, according to the IFR data.
The increased demand for robots in China is being driven primarily by large multinationals, especially in the automotive sector. China’s car industry, the world’s largest, accounts for about 60 per cent of robot demand in the country, according to research by management consultancy Solidiance. “Many Chinese companies would still rather watch somebody break their back trying to lift a heavy box than pay for an expensive lifting table,” said Pilar Dieter, who heads Solidiance’s Asia Pacific practice.
But advances in sensors, hydraulics, mobility and artificial intelligence are helping to make robots more flexible, precise and autonomous, enabling them to be used in a wider range of applications.
While China is the fastest-growing market for robots, Japan still has, by far, the highest number of industrial robots in operation, with more than 310,000 in 2012, compared with 96,000 in China and 168,000 in the US. (FT