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Plastics Today, September 2015

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AsiA-PAcific OutlOOk 22 GlObAl PlAstics RePORt 2015 PlAsticstOdAy.cOm Rise of the robots: China automates to maintain its global competitiveness In 2014, China surpassed Japan to become the world's largest market for industrial robots. Stephen Moore C hinese manufacturers are con- fronted with two critical manpower issues: A declining working-age population and skyrocketing wages. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the average monthly wage for a worker in China was $613 in 2013 (the most recent year for which data is available) compared with $391 in Thailand and $183 in Indone- sia. Further, China's National Bureau of Statistics reported that the working-age population—defined as those between ages 16 and 59—fell by 371,000 in 2013 to about 915 million in 2014. To boot, steady economic growth in the central and western reaches of China means workers are more likely to find work at or close to home and are less likely to travel east as migrant workers. Faced with the prospect of fewer, more expensive workers, it comes as no surprise that companies in the export- oriented province of Guangdong and elsewhere in China are rushing to automate, in particular their assembly processes. Take Gree Electric Appliances Inc. of Zhuhai, for example. The world's largest specialized manu- facturer of air conditioners, Gree reduced its headcount by 10,000 in 2014, to a total of 80,000, while simultaneously raising revenue from around $19.4 billion in 2013 to $22.6 billion. The company increased productivity through an automation program initiated in 2012 when it started to manufacture its own robots, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and other automation equip- ment. Gree's showcase of automation is a plant in Guangdong, housing 150 injec- tion presses connected to a centralized material feed system. Hot stamping is integrated press-side, while conveyors are used for part transfer. Further, AGVs are employed to transport tooling and inserts to the injection presses. "Our automation needs are special- ized on account of the wide variety of air conditioners we manufacture, but we found the technological level of Chinese robots insufficient," says Lewis Liu, Sales Manager, Industrial Goods–Automation at Gree. "Therefore, rather than import automation equipment, we decided to manufacture it ourselves." And as evidenced by Liu's title, Gree's robots and other automation solutions are now available to the plastics processing indus- try. The company commenced external sales in 2014. Also in the appliance field, Midea plans to slash its air conditioner division workforce of 30,000 by 6,000 by the end of 2015 at its factory in Foshan, Guang- dong Province, and a further 4,000 by 2018. Midea invested $145 mil- lion between 2011 and 2014 to install automation systems incorporating some 800 robots. It plans to add another 600 robots this year. Joining Gree in expanding into the automation sector is Shenzhen Rapoo Technology, better known as a manu- facturer of computer mouses and key- boards. The company's robotics division works as a systems integrator and has undertaken automation programs at its parent, as well as other companies, including one manufacturing remote control units. Rapoo's demo plant is composed of two production lines: A traditional system of eight workers, who turn out around 2,000 wireless mouses per day, and an automated line with robots and two workers that pro- duces more than 1,500 daily. Company spokesperson Deng Fengxia notes that the annual labor costs for 1,000 work- ers is around $9.7 million, but it costs Mouse and keyboard manufacturer Rapoo has automated production at its factory in Shenzhen.

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