Industrial robots began in Japan. Their use exploded in North America and Europe. But the future for industrial robots is China. By 2017, more industrial robots will be operating in China's factories than in North America or Europe, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) in its 2014 World Robot Statistics report. China's industrial robots will double from today's 200,000 to more than 400,000. In North America, numbers will rise to about 300,000, with 340,000 predicted for Europe's five largest economies.
China is already the largest market for industrial robots, but China has some catching up to do before it can claim to have the largest number of robots in use. China has low "robotic density," according to the IFR. China only has 30 industrial robots per 10,000 employees in manufacturing compared to Germany's robotic density of 30 for every 1,000 employees. In Japan robotic density is 11 times more than China. In North America robotic density is five times higher.
Automotive is driving China's robot purchases
The automotive industry is by far the largest robot customer in China, as it is in North America and Europe. "Huge investments by the automotive industry have boosted robot installations. China is the largest car market in the world and by far the largest production site for cars with much growth potential," Gudrun Litzenberger, general secretary and director of the Statistical Department at the International Federation of Robotics, told Design News.
China's manufacturing base boomed with electronics production. That industry is now turning to robots to automate its factories. "The electronics industry is investing increasingly in automation and robotics. Same with the rubber and plastics industry, as well as the metal industry," said Litzenberger. "The main reason is to increase productivity for domestic demand, and to improve quality for exports."
Rising labor costs make robots attractive
Like North America and Europe robotic solutions have become an attractive solution to rising labor costs. "The increase cost of labor is one reason for the increasing automation of manufacturing in China. Yet despite the tremendous increase of robot installations in China, the number of employees in the manufacturing industry has increased," said Litzenberger.
Another reason to deploy robots is to turn nasty jobs over to automated systems, while creating technical jobs for humans. "Dangerous, tedious, and dirty work is transferred from human to machine. Not only is the environment cleaner for workers, but also the job is less physically fatiguing," said Litzenberger. "In addition, by educating workers on how to use robots, they learn valuable programming skills and perform more stimulating tasks."
Newer plants mean newer equipment
In Asia, most plants are relatively new and thus they're deploying new equipment that comes with new technology. Yet even older factories in China are modernizing. "There are a lot of companies installing new production sites in China. But there is also a trend to modernize existing production sites in order to be competitive," said Litzenberger. "The demand for quality is increasing in China, and high and consistent quality of products is necessary for exports."
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 15 years, 12 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years he was owner and publisher of the food magazine, Chile Pepper.