China aims to be leader in robotics

China, the world's largest industrial robot market for the second year running in 2014, aims to become one of the leading manufacturers of the machines by 2030, trade delegates were told on Thursday.

The goal was set out at the annual meeting of the China Robot Industry Alliance in Yongchuan, Chongqing.

Last year, 57,000 such machines-a quarter of the robots made around the globe-were sold in China, a 55 per cent increase from the previous year.

South Korea, Japan, the United States and Germany were the other major markets last year, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

Demand for robots in China has been increasing at an annual rate of 58.9 per cent since 2009 because of rising labour costs and a shortage of workers, and the country became the world's top buyer in 2013 with orders for 37,000.

Foreign companies dominate the Chinese market and sold 40,000 industrial robots last year, about 70 per cent of total sales.

Domestic manufacturers have been catching up rapidly since 2005 as more than 700 companies have entered the field. It is estimated that the number will reach 1,000 this year.

In the past two years, Chongqing's Yongchuan district has attracted 65 robot makers to its Phoenix Lake Industrial Park, and it plans to have 200 robot companies by 2020.

"Both Chongqing and Chengdu in Sichuan province are major manufacturing bases and they will have a very strong need for robots," said He Minjia, president of Guangzhou CNC Equipment, one of the groups that has set up a company in Yongchuan. "We see a huge potential here."

Industrial robot manufacturing is one of 10 key sectors that will benefit first from the newly released national plan called Made in China 2025.

The plan, under the direct supervision of Premier Li Keqiang, is designed to make breakthroughs in bottleneck areas so that the country can play an even more important role in the global manufacturing chain.

Thanks to the national policy support and huge market potential, "we predict that China can become one of the strongest industrial robot makers by 2030", said Song Xiaodong, the industry alliance's secretary-general.By that time, the country will have a complete industrial chain and will be a world-leading research and development centre as well as a high-end manufacturing base for robot bodies and key components, he added.

In China, industrial robots are often used to move and load objects and for soldering, welding and assembling during the manufacture of electrical and electronic equipment and automobiles.

However, in 2013, there were only 3 robots for every 1,000 Chinese manufacturing workers, compared with the world average of 6.2.

Zhang Xiangmu, director of the equipment department at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, said Chinese robot manufacturers cannot follow the same development paths as traditional equipment makers.

"We have time pressure as the foreign makers are occupying not only the high-end market but also the low-to-medium market," he said.

"Chinese companies must make some breakthroughs, otherwise we will always follow behind others."

Yao Zhiju, the alliance's deputy head, said the technical gap between China and the leading countries is not very large.

China started to build and use industrial robots in the late 1970s when the industry was just taking off globally, he said.

"But it was not good timing for the development of the industry, as the country still had a lot of cheap labour," Yao said. "China has fairly good research power in robot development."

The real gap exists in the areas of quality, reliability and accuracy, he added.

This year, the country will establish a national quality evaluation centre for industrial robots in an effort to improve the technical level.

"The sector is now very hot and we should be careful not to make it too hot," he added.