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What will China do with a billion people when robots take over manufacturing?

Saturday, October 05, 2013 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: China, robotic labor, manufacturing

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(NaturalNews) The United States has been automating its manufacturing for decades, adding robotics to replace workers, especially in the vaunted U.S. automobile industry.

The process has most definitely taken its toll on Americans with low- to mid-level skills. In fact, the U.S. has lost 6 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Many of those were lost due to globalization - the outsourcing of production to developing nations with cheaper labor forces. But a lot of those jobs were also lost due to automation.

Enter China.

China's manufacturing workforce set to shrink in the coming years

The economic miracle of Asia employs millions of low-skilled workers in factories that churn out everything from the latest dollar-store kitchen gizmo to supercomputers. That's good news for Chinese leaders; a working population is more politically stable than a poor, unemployed workforce.

But what would happen if that large workforce were replaced by robots? How much unrest - domestically and geopolitically - would a restless, underemployed China create?

Well, the fact is, turnabout is fair play; as U.S. workers fell prey to automation and robots in the 20th century, losing many jobs to places like China, the Asian giant appears to be on the verge of a robotics revolution itself. Per The Wall Street Journal:

A new worker's revolution is rising in China and it doesn't involve humans.

With soaring wages and an aging population, electronics factory managers say the day is approaching when robotic workers will replace people on the Chinese factory floor.

A new wave of industrial robots is in development, ranging from high-end humanoid machines with vision, touch and even learning capabilities, to low-cost robots vying to undercut China's minimum wage.

The paper says that, over the next half-decade, robotics technologies are sure to transform China's factories. And Chinese executives say that's fine with them, considering that there may actually, in the short term, be a labor shortage, as fewer of China's youth consider manual labor as a way to make a living.

But clearly change is coming, and how it plays out will affect both how much of the world's electronic manufacturing remains in China and how the massive shift from human to robotic labor will affect the country's working demographic.

No one believes that China's shift to automation will happen overnight. Most executives, in fact, believe the process will take years, because the challenges are many, including the high cost of advanced robots, technical limitations and little flexibility in bringing robots to factory floors.

"If your orders decrease, you can lay off workers," Tim Li, senior vice president of Taiwanese PC contract manufacturer Quanta Computer Inc., told WSJ. "You can't lay off robots."

Robotics is good for Chinese manufacturers, but not so much for Chinese workers

Across the way in Taiwan, a company there - Delta - sees the coming robotics transition in mainland China and is acting. The firm is working to develop robots cheaply enough to replace human workers in China's gargantuan factories.

"It's clear that automation is the future trend in China, but the big question is how to bring down the costs for robots," Delta Chairman Yancey Hai told the paper. "We believe we can do that because we manufacture two-thirds of the components ourselves."

Much of this development could pan out for U.S. firms and American workers too, in the form of U.S. companies that manufacture robots. Some human workers will always be needed in the manufacturing process.

But if China's development leads to massive lay-offs of otherwise unskilled workers, where will they go? What will they do? Will they be "retrained" to do something else, or be left behind, as many American workers were?

The answers to these questions will decide the fate of China's future, as well as the future of stability in China's Asian neighborhood.





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