Once known as the world’s factory, China is hoping to transition from a manufacturing hub relying on cheap labor and abundant resources to a country driven by technological innovation and automation. TechNode talked to leaders from three robotic companies on the automation needs in Chinese factories and the construction industry. 

This conversation took place during an open panel discussion on Dec. 4 at the Beyond Expo tech conference, held at the Venetian Macao Convention and Exhibition Center in Macau.

The text below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Zhang Chaohui, Founder and CEO of Youibot

Chinese manufacturers face an urgent dilemma: they are expanding production when China’s population is aging, and more young people are choosing service jobs over factory jobs. This dilemma means we have to transition to smart manufacturing to avoid hollowing out.

In the last two years, many of our semiconductor clients have seen demand rising rapidly, sometimes by two or three times. But at the same time, they have a hard time finding people willing to work in factories. For example, one of my clients in a top chip factory said the factory has a 30% turnover rate every month, which is a common phenomenon in electronics factories.

Zhang Chaohui, Founder and CEO of Youibot at the 2021 Beyond Expo (Image credit: Beyond Expo)

People have seen robots as production tools in the past decade, but now more people will see robots as a production force. The way I look at the relationship between robots and people is that by using robots to automate some jobs, people will be liberated to do more high-level creative work, increasing people’s happiness.  

Xiong Junjie, Deputy General Manager of Hangzhou Shenhao Tech

We found that as the scenery and atmosphere of factories and other facilities changes with the seasons, some robots can get confused and lost if they’ve only been programmed for one time of year. This problem inspired us to customize our robots to suit different environments and needs. As a result, we have made robots that can move on wheels, rails, and via other forms of mobility. 

Xiong Junjie, Deputy General Manager of Hangzhou Shenhao Tech at the 2021 Beyond Expo (Image credit: Beyond Expo)

As Chinese manufacturers transition to meet the country’s goal of reaching peak carbon emission in 2030 and carbon neutrality in 2060, the inspection industry is working to provide inspection robots to new energy producers, such as solar power stations, wind power stations, and power storage stations. We are also working to have robots inspect carbon emissions so clients can get a more detailed read on emission data and trade redundant carbon emission quotas on the market.

Han Li, CEO of Fab-Union

Construction robots have only started to develop in the past two years, and it’s a new growth area in the industry. While we replace some traditional construction processes with automation, we also know some of those processes will slowly disappear as China tries to cut down carbon emissions. So not all current construction processes need to be automated, such as pouring reinforced concrete, which emits large amounts of carbon dioxide and might be replaced in the future by use of steel structures and wooden structures. 

It might take a while for the construction industry to reach a higher automation level. We might get a breakthrough in five to ten years. Automation in the construction industry will take more than robots replacing some human work. It will require a rethink in design, material, and crafts. I will use the 3D-printed chair we brought to the exhibition hall as an example. The chair is customized based on each person’s body; in other words, each of our chairs is different. If the chair is produced in a traditional industrialized way, it will take a lot more time, as every design change will change the production. But with 3D printing, we can build a customized chair in three to four hours.

Han Li, CEO of Fab-Union at the 2021 Beyond Expo (Image credit: Beyond Expo)