Chinese ‘Unmanned Factory’ Replaces 600 Humans With 60 Robots

One thing's for sure: robots are about to be a big thing in Chinese manufacturing

2 min read
Chinese ‘Unmanned Factory’ Replaces 600 Humans With 60 Robots
Visitors look at a robotic arm during an automation trade show in Shanghai. China is aggressively adding robots to its production lines, and by 2017 it will surpass both North America and the European Union in the number of robots operating in factories.
Photo: Imaginechina/Corbis

According to an article in the People’s Daily, the “official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party” (so emphasis on that “according to”), the Changying Precision Technology Company in Dongguan, a sprawling industrial city north of Shenzhen, has replaced some 600 human assembly line workers with 60 robots, resulting in a fivefold reduction in manufacturing errors and an increase in production of over 250 percent.

This is the first unmanned factory in Dongguan,” the article says, and the initial step of a comprehensive industrial automation plan for the region called the “Robot Replace Human” program.

Other robots in this factory, which manufactures “cell phone modules,” according to the article, include “unmanned transport trucks” and some unspecified automated warehouse equipment. The introduction of the robots reportedly improved production capacity from 8,000 modules per person per month to 21,000, and the defect rate has dropped from over 25 percent (!) to under 5 percent.

Apparently, there are still some human workers in the factory, but most don’t perform any actual assembly line task: the “technical staff just sits at the computer and monitors through a central control system.”

The city of Dongguan plans to finish 1,000 to 1,500 “Robot Replace Human” programs by 2016, which (if done on a similar scale to the example above) would vastly increase production and improve quality while putting nearly a million people out of work. 

By 2017, China will have over 400,000 industrial robots, surpassing North America and the European Union in the number of robots operating in factories.

If we look to slightly less state-run sources for some information on manufacturing robotics in China, it’s certainly clear that China has been relying on relatively unskilled human labor, and that the country is starting to aggressively transition into factory automation: by 2017, more industrial robots will be operating in China’s production plants than in the European Union or North America: over 400,000 individual units. To put that in context, China currently has just three robots per 1,000 humans in manufacturing settings. In Germany, it’s five times that many, and in Japan, more than 10 times.

We’re kind of not sure that we buy the whole story from People’s Daily, although it’s not so absurd that we’d say it’s completely false. And at some point, it’s definitely going to be true: there simply aren’t enough humans who want to be doing this kind of work, in China or anywhere else. Turnover is huge, and the workforce is highly unstable, and to keep up with the insatiable demand that the world has for cheap electronics, we’re going to have to depend on more and more robots to make up the difference.

Via [ People’s Daily ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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