China’s Impending Robot Revolution

Foxconn has long been considered a bellwether of Chinese manufacturing. When, four years ago, China’s largest private employer and primary assembler of Apple iPhones raised wages by up to 25% for its 1.2 million workers, manufacturers throughout China were forced to follow suit. Then in May, Foxconn announced a move of even greater import, disclosing that it had replaced 60,000 of the 110,000 workers at its giant plant in Kunshan, near Shanghai, by deploying thousands of industrial robots.

Analysts in the West either hail the coming robot revolution as a harbinger of unprecedented prosperity or warn of the widespread upheaval and massive loss of jobs it will leave in its wake. Does Foxconn’s rising robot army spell doom for the “world’s factory”?

Far from being blindsided by these new technologies, China’s private manufacturers have the opportunity, thanks to robots, to emerge stronger and more competitive than ever. China was late to embrace the robot revolution. There are still only 36 robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers in China, whereas in Japan there are 315 robots per 10,000 workers, and in South Korea, 478. But China has been moving boldly to close the gap. Beijing has set a goal of raising the robot-to-worker ratio to more than 100 by 2020.

The vast size of China’s manufacturing industry offers huge potential for economies of scale. President Xi Jinping has declared automation a national priority. Made in China 2025, an industry strategy announced by Beijing last year, provides manufacturers with billions of yuan for technological upgrades, including advanced machinery and robots. The provinces of Guangdong and Zhejiang alone have allocated $150 billion and $120 billion, respectively, over the next five years to equip factories with industrial robots.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, China was already the world’s biggest market for industrial robots in 2013. By 2014, Chinese factories accounted for 25% of the world’s industrial robots, a 54% increase over the previous year. Last year, Chinese manufacturers bought 68,000 of the 248,000 industrial robots sold globally. Industry experts expect that share to continue rising.

Along the Pearl River Delta, the familiar stereotype of the Chinese factory-thousands of workers in smocks bent over assembly lines performing the same tasks over and over-is giving way to a more complex reality in which small cadres of skilled workers toil in tandem with sophisticated machines. Midea Group, one of China’s leading appliance makers, is investing $800 million over the next five years to automate its residential air-conditioning subsidiary.

China’s leaders are also pushing for China to become not just the world’s largest robot buyer, but a leading robot maker. At the forefront of that effort are firms such as GSK CNC and Shanghai’s Siasun Robot & Automation, which are developing a range of robots for use in factories, and SZ DJI Technology Co is now the world’s largest consumer-drone maker by dollar sales.

Forecast International, a private market researcher, recently predicted that by 2023, Aviation Industry Corporation of China, a state-owned Chinese defense firm, will produce nearly $6 billion worth of unmanned aerial vehicles and control half the global market for such devices.

Yet despite the breakneck pace of transition, the risk of political instability in China is small. The country is used to rapid change. Job turnover in the manufacturing industry is 2.5 times that of the U.S. and has been so for decades.

China’s changing demographics are altering the way employers think about their labor force. They can no longer count on an endless supply of cheap workers. Labor costs have risen 15% a year since 2000. The working-age population will peak this year, and is projected to shrink 16% by 2050.

As China forges ahead with automation, there are at least three reasons to believe its chances for success are higher than the U.S., Europe or Japan.

First, China has developed a unique manufacturing ecosystem. Its companies, working in partnership with global firms, have created an extraordinarily sophisticated supply chain and built a network of collaboration between people and machines that allows for maximum flexibility at minimal capital investment. There is no parallel to this in any other economy in the world.

Second, with the possible exception of India, no other nation can match China’s capacity for producing the number of engineers necessary to oversee industrial robots at significant scale. One recent analysis concluded that each year China graduates at least three times as many engineers as the U.S.

Finally, the rising purchasing power of China’s consumers will provide a solid anchor for China-based manufacturing. Even with a slowing economy, China remains home to the world’s fastest growing middle class. Already there are 116 million middle-class and affluent households in China, with annual disposable incomes of at least $21,000. In 2000, there were just two million such households. With spending power of that magnitude, global companies have ample incentive to keep factories in China.

We see little cause to expect manufacturing to shift back to developed markets. China will not only remain the world’s factory, but it could increase the size of its manufacturing sector by as much as 22% by 2025. Western leaders would be ill-advised to imagine that these new technologies will play disproportionately to their advantage. Far from being left behind, China is at the forefront of the robot revolution.

Mr. Sneader is the chairman of McKinsey & Company, Asia. Mr. Woetzel is a director of the McKinsey Global Institute.

Aug. 3, 2016 12:30 p.m. ET
Kevin Sneader and Jonathan Woetzel