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back to index backCHINAtalk May,  2016

China chases early lead in world’s next industrial age with smart manufacturing

AT a plant in suburban Shanghai, machines press metal sheets into the shape of car body panels, hoods and doors. Auto parts carried by conveyor belts arrive soundlessly under giant robotic arms which will weld them into place on the frame. Finished cars are then moved to a painting room, where each vehicle is sprayed with the color specified in the buyer’s order.

All this welding, assembling and painting is done in a pitch-black environment, with not a single worker on the factory floor.

And instead of being shipped to dealerships for sale, cars are delivered right to the doors of buyers. The delivery requires no driver as the car can pilot itself to the destination. Built-in sensors enable it to keep a safe distance from people and other vehicles on the road. These scenes might seem to be taken from a science fiction novel, but they will likely become reality in the not-too-distant future.

With the development of robotics, unlit and unmanned factories will be the next industrial trend,” Gu Laifeng told Shanghai Daily. As deputy dean of the Overseas Education College at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Gu says that smart manufacturing” — a concept embodied by the still-hypothetical automated car factory described above — is gaining traction in China and beyond.

Sticking with our car-making example, vehicle manufacturing has long been organized around the make-to-stock model, where output is set in advance according to demand forecasts developed by marketers, analysts, engineers and managers. This will all change over time as smart manufacturing makes its way into the management philosophy of businesses, said Gu.

Ideally, by directly receiving and fulfilling orders from consumers, car makers will have the flexibility to adjust production on the fly. This could mean that each car that rolls off the line is tailor-made to the customer’s specifications.

This would have been unimaginable even a decade ago, when pre-determined production plans dictated what, and how much, factories churned out. New technology-enhanced production models also have the extra benefit of bypassing complex — and costly — networks of distributors and dealers.

With smart manufacturing, consumers will be connected directly to producers, which helps save time and money,” said Gu. The scenario he envisages is part of a grand strategy Chinese authorities have put together to bolster the Made-in-China brand, which somehow remains stuck near the bottom of the global value chain.

Commonly referred to as Chinese-style Industry 4.0,” this strategy represents a continuation of the previous three phases of industrial revolution — known respectively as the age of steam, the age of electricity and the age of automation.

According to Gu, the biggest hallmark of Industry 4.0 — a concept said to have been first developed by the German government — is that everything will be smart.”

A slew of cutting-edge technologies — including cloud computing, the Internet of Things and big data — are central to realizing the ultimate goal of reducing human involvement in manufacturing through direct machine-to-machine communication.

Rising labor costs in China over recent years have been a key driver behind growing spending on research into robotics and artificial intelligence. According to Gu, replacement of unreliable” humans by robots in certain jobs is a broad trend that promises to bring about tangible benefits.

Unlike humans who are prone to error and tire easily of monotonous work, robots, once correctly programmed, make no mistakes and can be trusted to turn out better products with higher efficiency.

At the center of the smart-manufacturing revolution will be the use and expansion of the Internet of Things. Much like the Internet we are all familiar with today, the Internet of Things is a network of interconnected machines, which can speak” to each other by means of chips, sensors and mutually recognizable communication protocols.

Blessing for daily life

Referring back to our earlier example of the car factory, the Internet of Things would allow a computer to take costumer orders and then communicate with the robots and systems responsible for painting the car and installing selected features and options.

Such a leap in AI could also be a huge blessing for our daily lives. Gu cited the example of an Internet-enabled smart refrigerator, equipped with chips and sensors, that could do automated inventory checks” to see” if certain foods are in short supply.

The fridge could then decide,” based on big data analysis of the owner’s eating habits, whether to place an order for fresh eggs, milk or ham. The next day, these items could be delivered to the doorstep, all without any input from the owner of the appliance. Once smart manufacturing takes hold, it will completely change our lives,” said Gu.

In an interview with Shanghai Daily, an official with Shanghai Municipal Development and Reform Commission (SDRC), the city’s top economic planning body, explained that the prevailing make-to-stock bulk model will over time give way to a make-to-order model characterized by customization and differentiation. Many manufacturers will be forced to reinvent themselves and the way they operate. Better still, this desirable evolution is in line with Chin’s much-publicized supply-side reform aimed at reducing excess capacity plaguing its industry sector.

The SDRC official, who declined to be named, also pointed out that although myriad technological barriers stand in the way of immediately reaping the fruits of Industry 4.0, it is anything but a fancy slogan. In addition to being billed by Chinese authorities as an economic imperative in the decade to come, this concept also tops the agenda of quite a few leading industrial powerhouses.

Many developed economies are also invariably fixated on reinvigorating manufacturing by introducing their own versions of Industry 4.0.

For instance, the Obama administration initiated the strategy of reindustrializing America” in 2009, hoping to restore the country to its past glory as a world factory” in the wake of WWII.

Meanwhile, Japan, a leader in nanotechnology and new materials, is trying to cement this position in 3D printing. Similarly remarkable are efforts made by Germany in the form of proposals conceived during the 2011 Hannover Messe by conglomerates like Siemens and Bosch.

The proposals included calls to upgrade German industrial operations using the latest high-tech know-how.

The core of Industry 4.0 comes down to the competition between country-specific industrial standards. Americans have their standards, so do the Germans and Japanese. In order for their products to dominate the world market, it is in these countries’ interests to see others adopt their standards,” the SDRC official told Shanghai Daily.

According to him, this is a global race involving high stakes. China’s failure to catch up with the early leaders will plunge its already struggling manufacturing sector deeper into crisis.

For the sake of staying competitive, or just for survival, China ought to participate in the game,” said the official.

Source: Shanghai Daily - GAI

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