China transforms from ‘workshop of the world’ to biggest robot buyer




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By Tanya Powley in

China, once the manual labour “workshop the world”, has become the biggest buyer industrial robots as rising wage costs and growing competition emerging economies have forced manufacturers to turn to technology.

The country bought 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 almost 60 per cent against 2012, according to new figures the International Federation 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 average increased 36 per cent every year 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’ industry, the world’ largest, accounts for about 60 per cent of robot demand in the country, according to by consultancy Solidiance. “Many Chinese companies would rather watch somebody break their back trying to lift a heavy box than for an expensive lifting table,” said Pilar Dieter, heads Solidiance’ Asia Pacific practice.

But advances in sensors, hydraulics, mobility and are helping to 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 has, by far, the highest 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