China could become the world's biggest consumer of industrial robots by 2014 mainly because they are doing jobs the Chinese are finding hard to fill.
The International Federation of Robotics in Frankfurt says demand in China is reaching 32,000 units - making it the fastest-growing robot market in the world.
China has many reasons to embrace industrial robotics. Robots can improve energy efficiency and perform operations that would prove impossibly complex for even the best-trained humans. But the most important reasons are shifting demographics and basic economics: China's working-age population is shrinking, sending labour costs spiralling upwards.
''There aren't many young workers coming off the streets to fill jobs at factories. That's why you're seeing factory wages going up, and factories struggling to hire trained staff,'' says Geoff Crothall, a spokesman for the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong. ''It's not surprising that you'd see greater focus on greater automation of production.''
China's growing affluence and family planning laws have had dramatic effects on its workforce. Improved medical care has enabled older generations to live longer, and the one-child policy has effectively capped the younger generation's size.
In 2000 there were six working-age citizens for each Chinese person aged 60 and up; 20 years from now, population experts predict, there will be only two. Young Chinese have no choice but to seek skilled, high-paying work to support their parents. They're better educated than their forebears, and less interested in menial assembly-line labour. Robots may fill the jobs left behind.
China still ranks low on the global robotic hierarchy, according to the state-run China Daily. Last year, there were 21 robots for every 10,000 workers in China, compared with a global average of 55. Japan has 339 robots for every 10,000 workers; Germany has 251.
This is changing. The Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn has revealed plans to boost its fleet of robots from 10,000 to 1 million within three years. According to the company's chief executive, Terry Gou, robots will replace workers for tasks such as spraying, assembling and welding.
Chinese officials have openly championed the industry's growth. The Shanghai municipal government has called robotics ''one of its major industries'', wrote the China Daily. At a media conference on Monday last week the vice-minister for human resources and social security, Yang Zhiming, emphasised the need to ''upgrade equipment and technology''.
Where the government sees potential, Chinese firms see the potential for incentives. ''China needs to subsidise its own enterprises - to improve its own equipment manufacturing, and to make sure that its own enterprises can compete with foreign technology,'' an employee of Shanghai's SIASUN Robot & Automation Company says. The employee says SIASUN had not yet received subsidies from the Shanghai government but that a deal may be in the works.
Even outside the factory, robots - jiqiren in Chinese, literally ''mechanical people'' - have proliferated in China, many of them homegrown. China's National University of Defence Technology unveiled the country's first bipedal humanoid robot in 2000, after more than a decade of research.
Chinese media lauded the block-headed robot as a technological advance but its slapdash appearance - and the unfortunate placement of a protruding joint - made it the brunt of online jokes in tech-savvy Japan.
A Chinese farmer, Wu Yulu, shot to fame in 2009 for building robots that could pull rickshaws, climb walls and light visitors' cigarettes. One local television station dubbed him ''China's cleverest farmer inventor'', according to Reuters.
In 2010, a hotpot restaurant opened in coastal Shandong province with more than a dozen Star Wars-style droids as entertainers and hosts.
In March, a Chinese restaurateur launched £1200 ($1800) robots that can slice thick-cut noodles out of blocks of dough.
''Following the market's increase in demand for talent, young people aren't willing to do such dirty, tiring work,'' the restaurateur, Cui Runguan, told Zoomin.TV. ''So not only in sliced noodle restaurants, but also in many other regards, we'll follow our technological development - and there will be many, many machines that can replace human labour.''
Guardian News & Media