China Is Building a Robot Army of Model Workers

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Can China reboot its manufacturing industry—and the global economy—by replacing millions of workers with machines?

Will Knight writes: Inside a large, windowless room in an electronics factory in south Shanghai, about 15 workers are eyeing a small robot arm with frustration. Near the end of the production line where optical networking equipment is being packed into boxes for shipping, the robot sits motionless.

“The system is down,” explains Nie Juan, a woman in her early 20s who is responsible for quality control. Her team has been testing the robot for the past week. The machine is meant to place stickers on the boxes containing new routers, and it seemed to have mastered the task quite nicely. But then it suddenly stoppedworking. “The robot does save labor,” Nie tells me, her brow furrowed, “but it is difficult to maintain.”

The hitch reflects a much bigger technological challenge facing China’s manufacturers today. Wages in Shanghai have more than doubled in the past seven years, and the company that owns the factory, Cambridge Industries Group, faces fierce competition from increasingly high-tech operations in Germany, Japan, and the United States. To address both of these problems, CIG wants to replace two-thirds of its 3,000 workers with machines this year. Within a few more years, it wants the operation to be almost entirely automated, creating a so-called “dark factory.” The idea is that with so few people around, you could switch the lights off and leave the place to the machines.

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But as the idle robot arm on CIG’s packaging line suggests, replacing humans with machines is not an easy task. Most industrial robots have to be extensively programmed, and they will perform a job properly only if everything is positioned just so. Much of the production work done in Chinese factories requires dexterity, flexibility, and common sense. If a box comes down the line at an odd angle, for instance, a worker has to adjust his or her hand before affixing the label. A few hours later, the same worker might be tasked with affixing a new label to a different kind of box. And the following day he or she might be moved to another part of the line entirely.

Despite the huge challenges, countless manufacturers in China are planning to transform their production processes using robotics and automation at an unprecedented scale. In some ways, they don’t really have a choice. Human labor in China is no longer as cheap as it once was, especially compared with labor in rival manufacturing hubs growing quickly in Asia. In Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, factory wages can be less than a third of what they are in the urban centers of China. One solution, many manufacturers—and government officials—believe, is to replace human workers with machines

Gerald Wong, CEO of CIG, is developing an automated electronics factory.

The results of this effort will be felt globally. Almost a quarter of the world’s products are made in China today. If China can use robots and other advanced technologies to retool types of production never before automated, that might turn the country, now the world’s sweatshop, into a hub of high-tech innovation. Less clear, however, is how that would affect the millions of workers recruited to China’s booming factories.

[Read the full story here, at technologyreview.com]

There are still plenty of workers around now as I tour CIG’s factory with the company’s CEO, Gerald Wong, a compact man who earned degrees from MIT in the 1980s. We watch a team of people performing delicate soldering on circuit boards, and another group clicking circuit boards into plastic casings. Wong stops to demonstrate a task that is proving especially hard to automate: attaching a flexible wire to a circuit board. “It’s always curled differently,” he says with annoyance.

But there are some impressive examples of automation creeping through Wong’s factory, too. As we walk by a row of machines that stamp chips into circuit boards, a wheeled robot roughly the size of a mini-fridge rolls by ferrying components in the other direction. Wong steps in front of the machine to show me how it will detect him and stop. In another part of the factory, we watch a robot arm grab finished circuit boards from a conveyor belt and place them into a machine that automatically checks their software. Wong explains that his company is testing a robot that does the soldering work we saw earlier more quickly and reliably than a person.

After we finish the tour, he says, “It is very clear in China: people will either go into automation or they will go out of the manufacturing business.”

Automate or bust

China’s economic miracle is directly attributable to its manufacturing industry. Approximately 100 million people are employed in manufacturing in China (in the U.S., the number is around 12 million), and the sector accounts for almost 36 percent of China’s gross domestic product. During the last few decades, manufacturing empires were forged around the Yangtze River Delta, Bohai Bay outside Beijing, and the Pearl River Delta in the south. Millions of low-skilled migrant workers found employment in gigantic factories, producing an unimaginable range of products, from socks to servers. China accounted for just 3 percent of global manufacturing output in 1990. Today it produces almost a quarter, including 80 percent of all air conditioners, 71 percent of all mobile phones, and 63 percent of the world’s shoes. For consumers around the world, this manufacturing boom has meant many low-cost products, from affordable iPhones to flat-screen televisions.

Workers at CIG retrieve items from one of several mobile robots that ferry materials around the facility.

In recent years, though, China’s manufacturing engine has started to stall. Wages have increased at a crippling 12 percent per year on average since 2001. Chinese exports fell last year for the first time since the financial crisis of 2009. And toward the end of 2015 the Caixin Purchasing Managers’ Index, a widely used indicator of manufacturing activity, showed that the sector had contracted for the 10th month in a row. Just as China’s manufacturing boom fed the global economy, the prospect of its decline has already started to spook the world’s financial markets.

Automation appears to offer an enticing technological solution. China already imports a huge number of industrial robots, but the country lags far behind competitors in the ratio of robots to workers. In South Korea, for instance, there are 478 robots per 10,000 workers; in Japan the figure is 315; in Germany, 292; in the United States it is 164. In China that number is only 36. Read the rest of this entry »


Market Misdirection in Hong Kong

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Regulators crackdown on free speech to shield Chinese firms from criticism.

Regulators in Hong Kong have an odd way of soothing investor concerns. With global investors reeling over China’s stock-market roller coaster and weakening economic data, Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) is proceeding with unprecedented actions against the authors of two critical research reports. This crackdown threatens to chill free speech in China’s leading financial center.

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In the first case, which went before an appeals tribunal last week, the SFC fined Moody’s Investors Service $3 million over a 2011 report raising “red flags” about dozens of mainland Chinese firms listed in Hong Kong. The regulator says Moody’s work was “shoddy and unprofessional,” with errors amounting to a failure of due diligence in preparing credit ratings.

[Read the full story here, at WSJ]

But Moody’s report didn’t offer credit ratings, merely analysis of corporate-governance and accounting concerns common among Chinese firms. It didn’t examine new information or change its debt ratings. So the SFC’s claim to jurisdiction here, relying on its authority over credit ratings, is questionable. Read the rest of this entry »


GLOBAL PANIC: Cyber-Espionage Case Reveals the Shabby State of Online Security

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A groundbreaking online-spying case unearths details that companies wish you didn’t know about how vital information slips away from them

David Talbot writes: On a wall facing dozens of cubicles at the FBI office in Pittsburgh, five guys from Shanghai stare from “Wanted” posters. Wang Dong, Sun Kailiang, Wen Xinyu, Huang Zhenyu, and Gu Chunhui are, according to a federal indictment unsealed last year, agents of China’s People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398, who hacked into networks at American companies—U.S. Steel, Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies (ATI), Westinghouse—plus the biggest industrial labor union in North America, United Steelworkers, and the U.S. subsidiary of SolarWorld, a German solar-panel maker. Over several years, prosecutors say, the agents stole thousands of e-mails about business strategy, documents about unfair-trade cases some of the U.S. companies had filed against China, and even piping designs for nuclear power plants—all allegedly to benefit Chinese companies.

Shutterstock

Shutterstock

“We must pay the cost of security, which is inconvenience.”

It is the first case the United States has brought against the perpetrators of alleged state-sponsored cyber-espionage, and it has revealed computer-security holes that companies rarely acknowledge in public. Although the attackers apparently routed their activities through innocent people’s computers and made other efforts to mask themselves, prosecutors traced the intrusions to a 12-story building in Shanghai and outed individual intelligence agents. There is little chance that arrests will be made, since the United States has no extradition agreements with China, but the U.S. government apparently hopes that naming actual agents—and demonstrating that tracing attacks is possible—will embarrass China and put other nations on notice, inhibiting future economic espionage.

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“The e-mails were cleverly designed. They purported to be from colleagues or board members, with subject lines relating to meeting agendas or market research, but they delivered malware by means of attachments or links.”

That may be unrealistic. Security companies say such activity is continuing, and China calls the accusations “purely ungrounded and absurd.” But there’s another lesson from the indictment: businesses are now unlikely to keep valuable information secure online. Whatever steps they are taking are not keeping pace with the threats. “Clearly the situation has gotten worse, not better,” says Virgil Gligor, who co-directs Carnegie Mellon University’s computer security research center, known as CyLab. “We made access to services and databases and connectivity so convenient that it is also convenient for our adversaries.” Once companies accept that, Gligor says, the most obvious response is a drastic one: unplug.

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Fracking and hacking

Sitting at a small conference table in his office in the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh, David Hickton, the United States attorney for western Pennsylvania, opened a plastic container he’d brought from home and removed and peeled a hard-APPROVED-STAMP-panic-redboiled egg for lunch. Although we were discussing an investigation involving global players and opaque technologies, the homey feel of our meeting was apt: the case had many roots in close-knit business and political circles in Pittsburgh. Hickton showed me a framed photo on a shelf. In the picture, he and a friend named John Surma are standing next to their sons, the boys wearing hockey uniforms, fresh from the ice. Both fathers had attended Penn State. As Hickton rose in the prosecutorial ranks, Surma rose in the corporate world, becoming CEO of U.S. Steel. When Hickton became the top federal prosecutor in the area in 2010, one of his meet-and-greet breakfasts was with Surma and Leo Girard, the boss of United Steelworkers, which represents 1.2 million current or retired workers in several industries. “I was asking them in a completely unrelated matter to serve on a youth crime prevention council,” Hickton recalls. “They said, ‘Can we talk to you about something else?’”

[Read the full text here, at MIT Technology Review]

At the time, the American fracking boom was in full swing, with ultra-low interest rates that had been set to stimulate the economy also lubricating the business of extracting previously hard-to-reach natural gas and oil. U.S. Steel had a flourishing business selling pipes specially designed for the extraction process. Among other traits, the pipes have no vertical seams, so they will hold up as they’re rammed thousands of feet into the earth and yet bend to convey oil and gas without breaking. Read the rest of this entry »