Last November, I made my first-ever trip to China, going with Nina Ying Sun, a Chinese-born reporter I work with at Plastics News in Akron. We covered a show in the southeastern city of Dongguan and traveled to Guangzhou, Shenzhen and north to Shanghai.
Like most Americans, I had many preconceived notions about this industrial juggernaut. My hometown of Cleveland has certainly suffered from industrial decay, in large part because American companies have moved so much work to low-wage countries like China. I hate the de-industrialization of America. It's even worse when it comes at the hands of U.S. executives who get rewarded with fat bonuses as hourly workers get shunted aside.
On the other side, covering business has exposed me to the ``go-to-China'' exhortations of executives like Nypro Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Brian Jones. China's population of 1.3 billion is an irresistible market, especially as the middle class grows.
So what did I think of China? My first impressions were pretty basic: tons of people, packed all over the place. Cars zipping past. Cities that just don't seem to end. Modern, elevated freeways swooping so close to high-rise apartments you can see people inside. Tremendous food. Guys in three-piece suits riding bicycles. Street vendors pitching knockoff ``Rolex'' watches.
The trade show we attended had a grand name - the China Dongguan International Machinery, Materials & Mould Exhibition - and a gritty ambience. In the lobby where participants signed in, one exhibitor played ear-splitting music. Inside, booth people were aggressive and enthusiastic, sticking product brochures into the hands of passers-by.
I haven't been to a Chinaplas show yet, so I don't know how that international fair compares to the local show in Dongguan, in a region known as a center for toys and electronic products. Let's say this: The Chinese view trade show safety a little differently. Machines protruded into the aisles. Trip hazards were common. I saw a booth visitor get bonked on the head by a beam robot (he laughed it off, rubbing his cranium). Nina and I also watched as people took turns plucking bowls from a moving picker robot. Another adventure in robot/human interaction!
At the show, I learned things such as:
* Domestic Chinese firms are looking at robots, even though labor is cheap. The reason: Molders get slowed down by high turnover or when workers don't return after Chinese New Year.
* Quite a few Chinese factories are doing multimaterial molding for products like power tools. Visitors to compounder Shenzhen Sunstar Enterprises Co. Ltd.'s booth grabbed samples overmolded with thermoplastic elastomers. Edward Parzyck, technical director, said most molders still move parts between two separate injection presses, but more-advanced, two-shot technology is coming.
So Chinese molders are using robots and turning out multimaterial parts - in a country that places manufacturing on a pedestal and lures vast quantities of foreign investment. It's a jazzed-up atmosphere that has to be experienced in person to be believed.
Bill Bregar is an Akron-based senior reporter.