China accelerates industrial automation as workforce contracts

China led the global industrial automation push last year, installing nearly as many heavy-duty robots in its factories as the rest of the world combined. Recent automation efforts are not as much about leading the way as they are about playing catch up. Until recently, the nation has lagged behind other power players like Japan, Germany, South Korea and the US in terms of robots on production lines.

Data from the International Federation of Robotics viewed by The Wall Street Journal revealed that shipments of industrial-grade robots in China increased 45 percent year over year to more than 243,000 units. According to the publication, that represents just under half of all industrial robots installed last year and bolsters the country’s status as the leading market for robot manufacturers.

The recent push could also be in response to China’s aging workforce, slowing birth rates and wage increases. Because the country can no longer rely on its workforce to drive economic growth, they are using automation to boost the productivity of their remaining workers.

The International Labor Organization estimated China had 147 million people working manufacturing jobs in 2021, down from a peak of 169 million in 2012.

Productivity among workers is well below the global average in China. According to data from the Conference Board, employee output per hour worked in China was about one-fourth the average of G7 nations including Germany, Japan and the US last year. Productivity growth has also slowed, from a nine percent annual average between 2000 and 2010 to just 7.4 percent over the last decade.

Andrew Harris, deputy chief economist at Fathom Consulting in London, said you can’t wait until you run out of people to start dealing with it.

That said, China still accounts for much of the world’s manufacturing needs – about 29 percent according to data from the United Nations. Adding more robots to the equation will allow the country’s factories to perform more precise work than most humans can manage. It also does not hurt that the cost of installing robots continues to dwindle.