Robots in manufacturing are nothing new. They don’t need tea breaks, the don’t need unions, maternity leave, a parking space, or private healthcare. They just need as much power as they can drink and clear instructions on what is required. They are the perfect workforce. This is something China is now waking up to. Despite having just about the cheapest, most numerous labour market on the planet, China is seeking to have more robotic factories in place by 2014 than anywhere else in the world. Currently, they sit ahead of the US, but behind Japan and Korea but are catching up fast. The move is a logical one, even if it doesn’t seem so on the surface. The increase in labour costs, increased expectation of workers and the desire to share in the riches being brought to the country has created significant problems for bosses in China. Civil unrest, strikes and protests are on the increase, as is the insistence on improvements in pay, conditions and basic human rights. All things robots do not need. The Chinese government’s own five year plan includes a mandate for wage rises of 13% over the term, compounding those expenses. Take the beleaguered tech manufacturer Foxconn. Headlines have mentioned this company more than once and they didn’t say anything good. While sterling efforts seem to have been made to improve conditions in their factories, pay and conditions still have a long way to go. Turning to robots wipes that slate clean. The main drive for fully mechanising China’s manufacturing is pure economics. China’s exponential growth over the past decade has been partly down to their ability to undercut most western manufacturers and partly by forcibly undervaluing their currency. Rising labour costs are slowly increasing the price of Chinese goods, making them less of a bargain. Add to that the increase in the desire to support home-grown industries and the potential markets for Chinese goods shrinks. Counter the rising prices by automating as many industries as possible and you remove that first barrier to entry. By the same token, you also remove one of the other clouds hanging over Chinese manufacturing, pay and conditions. Once the initial investment has been made, the rest is profit. There is much sense in turning to robots to make goods, even if those robots are imported. However, it begs the question, where are the Chinese people going to work if not in manufacturing?

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