Automation in China: Should we be worried?


  • ASEAN
  • Saturday, 18 Jan 2020

Information era: A large digital screen in Yucun Village with information on the weather and temperature, names and contacts of volunteers managing the village, places to stay and number of houses-turned-restaurants.

IT was a sight many thought would not be seen.

Factories in second or lesser tier cities have already embraced automation and artificial intelligence, which is a scary warning to Malaysia and the rest of the world of what can be expected in the years ahead.

That revelation was showcased by China to the world’s media during a 10-day trip that ended early this month where the prospects and potential of China’s manufacturing acumen was displayed to the awe of many in attendance.

At the facilities of Suzhou Victory Precision Manufacture Co Ltd in the province of Jiangsu, robotic arms fashion laptop covers that will find its way around the world. It counts among its clients Huawei, Foxconn, Geely, Apple and Dell.

Executive vice-president Simon Zhang says the company started out as a private company 20 years ago. It went from making TV monitors to mobile phones, LED batteries computer-related equipment.

The startling observation was that this factory, 215km from its province capital Nanjing was devoid of people in an assembly line except for robotic arms that precisely do what it is programmed for.

“Everything you see here is made or created in China, ” he proudly announces. We want to be a leading provider of technology with a global position, ” Zhang says.

Its first overseas subsidiary is in Holland. It has operations in Japan, Estonia, the United States. Two years ago, it opened in Vietnam and India.

“If we don’t have locations outside China we will be impacted by the on-going US-China trade war. If it takes off – the worse case scenario – we are prepared. It is not that when the trade war happens, we have two to three engineers. We have 70 engineers. It is just that now, these subsidiaries in Vietnam and India are not fully operational. But when the worse case scenario hit us, we are ready, ” he says.Since technology and smart manufacturing strategy has improved efficiency, reduced wastage and increased productivity.

Yucun Village director Yu Xiaoping says the villagers relied on mining the mountains and air was black with pollutants back in the 1980s and people often fell ill.Yucun Village director Yu Xiaoping says the villagers relied on mining the mountains and air was black with pollutants back in the 1980s and people often fell ill.

In Wuxi-based Hongdou Group Co Ltd, one of 120 pilot enterprises for deepening reform, the three-generation family company has expanded its initial cloth sack trade to apparel to real estate to tyres over the years. Wuxi is 190km from capital Nanjing.

Its vice-president Chen Jiangang says the company took 10 minutes to make a tyre before but has reduced this to 38 seconds today as a result of automation.

It was a quick breeze through to the company that Sunday and the group drove to its tyre factory in another part of Wuxi.

Like Zhang’s smart manufacturing, Chen’s factory has been robotised.

Driverless in streets and ports

In the Lin-gang special area, more than 60km from the city of Shanghai, members of the media wondered why the place lacked people and cars on its streets.

It turned out this was a simulated site to test driverless cars. Known as the Shanghai Lingang intelligent connected vehicle integrated testing demonstration zone, wind, rain and other weather conditions, tunnels and slopes were created to test driver less vehicles.The group also visited phase four of Yangshan deep water port in Zhejiang province, the world’s first fully-automated port.

According to Shanghai International Port (Group) Co Ltd and Shandong Container Terminal branch deputy general manager James Sun, a skeleton 30 key personnel are needed to operate the port sited on 550 acres of reclaimed land off Hangzhou Bay.

This compares with 3,800 personnel for phases one, two and three, says Sun.

Yangshan deep water port is the latest and largest of three automated ports in China. It has yet to reach its designed capacity of 6.3 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) versus the current less than four million TEUs.

Robotic arms in the assembly line in Suzhou Victory Precision Manufacturing Co Ltd factory. Suzhou is one of nine cities in China president Xi Jinping Yangtze River Delta G-60 Valley project.Robotic arms in the assembly line in Suzhou Victory Precision Manufacturing Co Ltd factory. Suzhou is one of nine cities in China president Xi Jinping Yangtze River Delta G-60 Valley project.

“But all the equipment and systems you see are made in China, all the hardware and software, ” he emphasises. Automation has reduced the number of personnel needed, he adds.

The bridge cranes, auto-guided vehicles and railed-mounted grantry cranes run by themselves. Phase four started operations in 2017.

In 2010, Shanghai overtook Singapore as the world’s busiest container port, six of top 10 busiest container ports are in China or Hong Kong, prior to the 2019 protests.

Be it port operations, city or village life, their common thread which binds each destination is automation, be it robotic arms in factories or digitisation in village community centre.

The media group travelled through rural parts of the three provinces where agriculture continues to be a way of life. Vegetable plots dot the way and bamboo plantations are the norm in Yucun, Anji county, about 220km from Shanghai, 50km from the nearest city of Huzhou.

Although small traders make dried fruits and nuts, “shao bing” or baked biscuits resembling naan in large earthen pots for tourists, the village has been wired to embrace tech.

The Chinese government is trying to close the gap between the city and rural divide with technology. That was the impression given in Yucun with its 280 households and population of about 1,000.

Yu Xiaoping director of Yucun Village says the villagers relied on mining the mountains and air was hazy with pollutants in the 1980s and 1990s.In 2005, then party chief of Zhejiang province Xi JinPing visited Yucun Village. He directed the closure of the mines and encouraged the miners to switch to ecological tourism.

Yu says: “It was difficult initially because the people had to relearn how to make a living. The government helped us by investing in a lot of programmes.”

Today, about 20% of its population are engaged in tourism-related work. In 2018, the village received 800,000 visitors, spending more than 30 million yuan, or a third of the village’s income.

In the village’s tourist centre, a running large digital screen displays in real-time changing temperature and weather conditions, the volunteers on any given day managing conflicts and the number of households and lodging houses and eateries. It is an indication of how the village is tech to bind the villagers. In the community centre, medical tech products and a doctor from the health ministry visits every 25th on the month.

“Today, Yucun is a community with the people themselves managing the village and any conflicts that arise. Now you can see the place is green again. Before you cannot see the grass, ” says Yu.

In all three provinces, in both cities and countryside, the government is pushing out technology by encouraging small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and companies to go tech.

Where the Yangtze flows

Shanghai’s Songjiang district vice-head Gao Yiyi says the cities and towns the group visited were part of a region known as the Yangtze River Delta.

It is also known as G60 Science & Technology Innovation Valley, with the aim to become the equivalent of US Silicon Valley.

Hence, the focus on science, technology, robotics, bio health and medicine.

Gao says: “(China’s president) Xi JinPing aims to make this area an important platform for the further opening up of China.”

On May 24,2016, Xi asked for the Songjiang district to conceptualise G60 Valley. All in, there were three versions and the latest settled on a rail system to connect nine cities – Shanghai, Jiaxing, Hangzhou, Jinhua, Suzhou, Huzhou, Xuancheng, Wuhu, and Hefei – covering an area of about 76,200 square kilometers.From made in China, the central government is now steering the country to Created in China.


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