China now the world’s largest market for industrial robots

It is official: China is now the world’s largest market for industrial robots. Figures from the International Federation of Robotics and China’s own Robot Industry Alliance both put the number of industrial robots purchased by China last year at around 37,000.

China not only overtook Japan as the world’s premier consumer of robots but accounted for more than 20 percent of all global sales. And all the predictions are that China’s market will continue to expand in the future. “China has the fastest-growing robot market. In a few years’ time China will be significantly larger than the second and third largest robot market,” Per Vegard Nerseth, head of robotics for Switzerland’s ABB told the Financial Times.

Wang Ruixiang, head of the China Machinery Industry Federation, estimated that sales of industrial robots in China will triple to around 110,000 by 2010. “China has huge potential in the robot market," he said.

This however is not necessarily bad news for Chinese workers. Firstly, China’s workforce is shrinking, and secondly, it is important to note that, even with the rapid rise of automation over the last five years, China currently only has 96,000 robots in operation, compared with 168,000 in the United States and more than 310,000 in Japan. As such, it will be a few years before robots have a significant or detrimental impact on the employment market.

The majority of robots in China (around 60 percent) are currently used in the automotive industry, a rapid growth area which is actually helping to create reasonably well-paid and skilled jobs.

Moreover, the growing demand for robots will also present opportunities for China’s domestic robot manufacturers who currently have less than ten percent of the domestic market. Sales to China are currently dominated by Japanese and European manufacturers but if China’s manufacturers can gain a greater foothold in the domestic market that will of course create job opportunities for skilled and semi-skilled workers in those companies.

Meanwhile, there is little real evidence that the much-hyped “Foxbot,” designed to replace production line workers at Foxconn’s China factories is having much of an impact. Foxconn is still heavily reliant on manual labour, and new reports suggest that the company will recruit as many as 100,000 new workers in 2014 to meet demand for the iPhone and iPad. Moreover, as the frequent strikes and protests at its factories suggests - there were four protests in March alone, working conditions have not improved noticeably over the last three years.

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