Guangdong province has recently released a 10-year blueprint for developing smart manufacturing. The guidelines have replaced the previous “replacing humans with robots” with “robot application” plans.
Some may think both phrases refer to smart manufacturing and upgrading, but there’s actually a difference.
In the guidelines, humans are no longer seen as elements that can be easily substituted by robots.
It’s a sign that Guangdong won’t follow a self-destructing path. Many regions have overlooked the value of the human component in drafting their development strategies, deviating from the original intention of government authorities.
Guangdong has upheld the tradition of treating new migrants as a burden in its push for urbanization and “hukou” reforms.
The province is determined to put new migrants in lower-tier cities to mitigate mounting social issues for cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
The new development plan has more respect for humans, but it still considers “smart manufacturing” as the only way to beef up competitiveness in the manufacturing sector.
That is worrying. The use of robots can be applied to many industries, including the labor-intensive automobile sector.
However, the experience we’ve learned from the carmaking industry shows that smart manufacturing facilities are not sufficient to stimulate innovations.
Some Chinese car manufacturing joint ventures have spent big amounts in acquiring state-of-the-art production lines since the 1980s.
These factories have already achieved automation similar to the level of their global peers, and robots play a big part in this upgrade.
However, none of them were able to develop cars suitable for mass production. As a result, they are forced to import foreign technology, and so large parts of the profits go into foreign parties.
In order to make the business more profitable, these factories have to enhance their ability to develop new technology.
Such an ability affects a company’s decision-making capability and determines whether a company can select and improve technology creatively, and gain a solid spot in the market.
The experience of applying a certain technology to product development has to be accumulated from actual practices. An efficient coordination system has a fundamental impact on how this knowledge can contribute to the long-term growth of a company.
Industry giants don’t ignore the important role humans play in learning technologies. They understand that eventually humans have to teach machines how to produce.
Japanese carmaker Toyota even went against the tide and replaced robots with human beings in its domestic factories last year.
These craftsmen will effectively reduce defection rate and generate valuable innovations.
It’s been reported that Toyota was able to reduce raw material waste by 10 percent after it resorted to hiring more flesh-and-blood workers.
Manufacturers in Guangdong are set to pursue smart manufacturing even without government encouragement. However, a blind obsession with automation might put an end to continuous improvement in workers’ skills.
The temporary improvement in manufacturing capacity might lead to stagnation in employees’ control over the machines, which in turn could lead to a degradation of production efficiency and product quality.
I’m not exaggerating the potential dangers of automation. But it is important that we understand the capability and unique roles played by humans in managing these machines.
That’s how a manufacturer can achieve success.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 21.
Translation by Julie Zhu
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