Sogal, a manufacturer of wardrobes, is located at Pearl River delta in Guangdong province, China. Sogal’s sale reached to 4.53 billion yuan in 2016. However what is more impressive is that such a sale has been made on the condition that fewer employees are being employed. While Sogal’s sale has expanded by 3.7 times since 2012, the increase of its employees is only 1.5 times in the same period.
The key to such dramatic improvement of productivity is automation and digitisation. In Sogal’s Zengcheng factory, which is of 10,000 square meters large, one only can see one or two workers working on control panels or doing some simple operations per every 30-50 spare meters thanks to extensive usage of robots.
Over 10 years ago making wardrobes to the orders required a large number of skilled workers. Every cabinet maker had different approaches to jobs despite of same drawings. Human errors were common.
The deployment of robots has totally changed the way of making wardrobe in Sogal. In the sorting process, which is to prepare and allocate timber plates to different jobs, the use of robots has made it possible to reduce labour by 80%. In one of Sogal workshops every single shift could only handle 300 orders in the past; now 600-800 orders can be fulfilled per shift which involve handling 80 thousands components of different sizes thanks to automation.
Apart from improvement of productivity and reduction of human errors, the fundamental contributing factor to the massive deployment of robots in Sogal is to deal with the pressure of wage increases.
Apart from the compulsory rise of minimum wage set by the government, enterprise bargaining becomes increasingly popular in companies in Pearl Delta, China’s capital of labour intensive manufacturing. In a survey conducted by Standard Chartered Bank, 50 out of 200 companies surveyed had conducted enterprise bargaining which led to wage increases up to 12%. In the report “China ASEAN and future 2017” Standard Chartered Bank predicted that the average wage increase will be 7.2% in Guangdong.
In the face of rapid wage increase, employers are keen to introduce robots into their operation even through the prices are high. International Federation of Robotics cited in its February report that demand for robots in China has increased by 5 times in the period from 2010 to 2016. Having become the largest market for robots in the world since 2013, China’s share in the global robot sales increased from 20% to over 30%.
It is against such a backdrop, Industrial Automation Shenzhen 2017 has set its focus firmly on robots. Almost every show booth has robots on display. Managers from manufacturers ranging from jewellery, electrical cable, toy, and to furniture are looking for robots that can be fitted into their operations.
However automation will not be an easy task, especially to those companies that make delicate instruments with limited output.
Beasun group that has 8 production lines with 800 workers is specialised in making bone conduction headphones and other high-tech instruments.
As the components of headphones are very small and delicate, damages to products during the process are common. In order to assure a sound workmanship Beason only hires workers with college qualifications as college graduates proven to be more attentive and patient on jobs. In addition to free dormitory and meals, workers of Beason get 4000 yuan per month, 1000 more than the workers in factories making white goods.
Fan Fuqing, boss of Beason intended to drive down labour cost by implanting robots into the existing production lines. However the efforts turned out to be failure because the existing production lines are not designed for the operation of robots. Often the change in the temperature, moisture and position of robots due to vibration, despite of only a few millimetres can cause major defects to products.
The problems deterred Fan from the idea of implanting robots into existing production lines. Instead he will ask qualified companies to design new production lines where conditions are fine tuned to accommodate the operation of robots.
The situation Fan faces is common: deployment of robots in high precision industries has always been a challenge, such as jewellery industry.
In the site of Industrial Automation Shenzhen 2017, an employer of a jewellery factory consulted with marketing director Zhang Chunlian from Liqun Automation for the possibility of fitting robots into production lines for rings. Liqun is specialised in manufacturing and application of light industrial robots.
Zhang admitted that deployment of robots in the production of rings would be extremely difficult. If the robot holds a ring too loose, it will compromise the polish process; if the robot holds it too tight it would result in excessive weary. The high value of jewellery means such weary will be very costly.
The robots and associated equipments for automation are mainly come from overseas. In the case of Sogal they primarily come from Germany, Austria and other European countries.
However in the eyes of Sogal technicians the efforts and achievements of Chinese high-tech companies in automation are by no means inferior to their European counterparts.
The manufacturing activities in Pearl River delta, Guangdong are highly concentrated in light industries carried out by small to medium sized companies. In different to the mess production such as assembling cars where heavy and standard robots are fitted, light industries in Guangdong require small and light robots. The unique requirements make adaption of conventional robots into these businesses very difficult. Many processing companies in Guangdong have failed so far in sourcing right robots for their operations.
Liqun Automation participated into industrial automation in 2012. The products of the company failed to impress the market due to poor market investigation until the end of 2015.
Liqun made a turnaround by investing huge resources into the investigation, design and production of the robots for assembling electronic devices and packing moon cakes. Shi Jingbo, founder of Liqun Automation considers that development of right robots adaptive to the production environment of different industries has always been the key to success.
Like Liqun many Chinese high-tech companies have done great job in relation to data collection and processing which are important to the development of specifically designed robots for unique applications.
The government blueprint “China manufacturing 2025” has clearly stated that development of industrial robots and automation should be prioritised. So far industrial parks dedicated to development of advanced robots have emerged in Shenzhen, Shanghai, Kunshan in Jiangsu province and Xianghe in Tianjin.