Lessons Learned In China: Don’t Fear The Robots

Made In China 2025

While the news of Made in China 2025 (MiC 2025) – China’s aggressive plan to remake its manufacturing sector launched in May 2015 – was eclipsed in the global media by the news of its economic struggles by the end of the year, I’m certain that it remains the driving force behind decisions and actions being taken by Chinese manufacturers today.

Last summer, when I wrote about the implications that MiC 2025 had for US manufacturers, the race to bring smart, collaborative robots to work in Chinese factories had really just begun. In the past six months, the pace of adoption has picked up significantly – well in keeping with IFR’s 2014 prediction that China would increase the number of industrial robots deployed in its factories nearly five-fold – from 100,000 to over 425,000 by 2017.

The adoption rate in China for these robots exceeds what we’re seeing in any other market. I can say definitively that in no other place where we do business is the sense of urgency so intense – fueled by rising costs, labor shortages, and high turnover rates. I’ve been thinking about the differences between China and other markets when it comes to what’s happening with robots and automation. Some takeaways based on our experience are here.

A bold leap of faith. Unlike manufacturers in the US and Europe who invest heavily in designing a strategy, testing and analyzing and then putting it to work, Chinese manufacturers are focused on getting experience with robots and using that experience to start deploying. As a result, the speed at which they are learning to apply this new breed of robots is much faster and so are the benefits they gain along the way.

On the job from day one. For MiC 2025 to succeed, the most complex part of automating the factory cannot be integrating robots into the environment. Getting robots deployed quickly – as measured in days, not months – makes Chinese manufacturers better positioned to maximize the window for profit-taking in the ever-decreasing product lifecycle, especially true for consumer electronics.

Imperfection is reality, deal with it. Traditional robots can’t cope with the variability inherent in most manufacturing, requiring extremely rigid, highly customized production lines. Any change requires reconfiguration that comes with expensive integration and significant lead-time. Moving beyond this “monument-centric” approach to deploying automation by building operations that can be easily and quickly modified as work evolves is essential in the imperfect environment that is the factory of the future. These are lessons Chinese manufacturers have taken those to heart – starting out of the gate with more flexible solutions that require less integration.

Transforming what Made in China means. MiC 2025 is a bold call to action to transform Chinese manufacturing from the world’s source of low-cost labor to the leader in innovation and quality. As demand for mass customization rises, the business model that produced one SKU, ten million times isn’t going to cut it. Smart, collaborative robots are essential to give customers what they want when they want it and for the exponential improvements in quality needed to redefine Chinese manufacturing.

Smart automation transforms the workplace. With employee turnover rates close to 20 percent, having robots that can be trained quickly on multiple tasks and that can perform those tasks robustly without intervention is an essential piece of the solution. More importantly, as robots get smarter and as innovation advances bring IIoT and cloud robotics – where robots can share knowledge, learn from another and provide value-added data analytics to detect and isolate quality issues more quickly – online, the value these operations deliver to both the manufacturer and customers will only grow.

I’ve said often that we’re at a crossroads in manufacturing – where the definition of what it means to work in a factory is changing. I’ve also said that there’s no roadmap for what lies ahead – we’ve got to chart a new course. From what we’ve seen and experienced in China, these manufacturers are stepping quickly into the future. It’s exciting to be at the table, and I promise to share more as we learn more. I welcome any observations you’ve got – tweet me @jim_lawton.

Originally published on Forbes.