In low-wage China, plastics factories are still pretty labor-intensive, but robots are becoming more common, according to robot and injection press suppliers at the China Dongguan International Machinery, Materials & Mould Exhibition.
Automation is nothing new at the showcase China plants of multinational companies, the American and European electronics and automotive giants. What's changing now is that domestic Chinese molders in the heavily industrialized southern and eastern coastal regions are starting to show interest in robots - as they face high worker turnover and faster cycle times.
Factory workers go home for Chinese New Year. Often, they don't come back. Many simply remain in their rural hometowns in the inland provinces, said exhibitors at the trade show.
Robots stay put.
``The job loyalty is not so good in China,'' said Jonathan Ching, managing director of Wittmann Robot (Shanghai) Co. Ltd., the Chinese operation of the Austrian robot maker. The massive influx of foreign investment that transformed China into the world's factory also has led to job hopping, as laborers jump ship if they get 200 or 300 yuan more a month (about $25-$38), he said.
``Normally the operators in plastics processing, they need certain training. And if they're changing their jobs so often, for the employer it's a problem. They constantly have to train some new people, and this will affect their quality and productivity,'' Ching said.
Southern China has an unstable factory workforce, said Ringo Au of Hong Kong-based injection press maker Chen Hsong Machinery Co. Ltd. ``They work for one year or two years, then go back home. So in the last year or so, a lot of the customers in South China, they're looking for a robot instead of a person to deal with the parts,'' he said.
While large companies with money to invest are buying robots, small and midsize molders still are holding off, said Ming Kin To, who sells injection presses in Guangdong province for Toshiba Machine Hong Kong Ltd. To said the decision to automate boils down to simple economics: the price of a robot vs. the cost of employees.
To said the price of a robot generally equals two or three years' worth of salary for production workers running a machine 24 hours a day.
Robots also ensure consistent cycle times, improving quality, robot suppliers said. They're more consistent - not to mention safer - than a worker opening the door to pull parts out of a mold.
Improving mold technology also opens the door for robots. On simple parts, workers trim flash and rework parts. But Wittmann's Ching said better-quality molds in China mean parts are coming out of the press ready to be assembled.
``We see a big potential for the local market,'' said Ching. One domestic molder that supplies car makers in China bought a highly sophisticated automation system from Wittmann. Ching declined to identify the customer, but he said the entrepreneurial management has ``a very long time frame.''
``They know that to become the qualified supplier to these big international companies, they have to equip themselves with very high-level, high-tech machinery and equipment,'' Ching said.
Wittmann opened its first plant in China this year, near Shanghai.
Using part-removal robots is necessary to get faster cycle times on parts such as packaging or mobile phone covers, said Au at Chen Hsong's booth. Human hands can't work that fast.
Safety is a big issue. To Western eyes, China seems to have an unending flow of millions of cheap workers flooding from the countryside to manufacturing centers like Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Dongguan.
But there's more to the story, Au said. ``Some people just don't have any experience on an injection molding machine. So they come in and they don't know how dangerous it can be,'' said Au, project manager for the company's ChenPET line of PET preform injection molding machines.
Takeout robots and sprue pickers were featured in the booths of injection press and robot sellers throughout the show, held Nov. 9-12 in Dongguan, a major plastics region and a center of China's toy industry.
Robot makers are optimistic but realistic when it comes to domestic Chinese molders. It will be a slow evolution, said James Huang, general manager of Alfa Automation Machinery Co. Ltd., a Taiwanese robot maker with one Chinese factory, in Dongguan, and a new one in Suzhou expected to begin production in the first quarter of 2006.
Huang said local mainland-Chinese-owned processors only account for about 10 percent of Alfa's robot business, compared with 30 percent from Taiwan-owned molders and 30-40 percent from Hong Kong-owned companies. Even in more developed manufacturing regions, less than 5 percent of the domestic processors use some sort of automation.
That 5 percent robot penetration figure was echoed by Sun Liqing, general adviser of the Shenzhen Plastics and Rubber Association. ``It's still very common to have two to three workers standing by an injection molding machine,'' he said in a Nov. 12 interview at the industry group's office in Shenzhen .
``Most Chinese companies are still making low-value-added products and don't want to invest in additional equipment,'' Sun said. ``Some companies that I know have bought robots simply to attract customers and get contracts - that's even a bigger incentive than improving efficiency.''
But manufacturing in China continues to evolve. Huang estimated it will take about a decade for the robot market to grow to a decent size in China. He cited the labor shortage and rising labor costs in industrialized areas are driving all processors to look at automation. Many young people also prefer service jobs to hard, physical factory work, he said.
``Both the existing and future injection machines will need to be equipped with robots,'' Huang said.
One of Alfa's main competitors in the Chinese market is Japanese robot maker Star Seiki Co. Ltd. At the trade show, Fong Chun Lam said the company was a pioneer in Chinese robot manufacturing, at a 10-year-old factory in Shenzhen making pneumatic-powered robots. Star Seiki is studying whether to add Chinese assembly of its servomotor robots - now made in Japan.
Lam said Star Seiki, like Alfa, sells lots of robots to Hong Kong-based companies with plants on the mainland. ``Almost every big company uses our robots,'' he said.
Chinese-owned molders are buying robots, but they often choose less-expensive robots from Taiwan over higher-priced Japanese models, said Lam, who works in sales at Star Seiki's office in Shenzhen.
Another Japanese supplier, Harmo Co. Ltd., sells mostly to Japanese companies. ``I'd say only 1 percent of our customers are Chinese companies,'' said Hiroshi Nakamura, general manager of Harmo's Hong Kong branch.
He said domestic molders favor Chinese-made robots.
Harmo is considering making robots in China. As more suppliers enter the Chinese market, the price of robots for injection molding has dropped dramatically in recent years. ``The profit margin has been narrowed,'' Nakamura said.