China speeds up its development of “unmanned economy”

A drone operator flies an agricultural spraying drone for disinsection in a cotton field of Dafeng township, Hutubi county, Changji Hui autonomous prefecture of Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region Aug 13. People’s Daily Online/Tao Weiming

Unmanned economy is enjoying rapid development driven by new technologies. Statistics indicate that China is now home to 16,000 unmanned retailing enterprises and 56,000 industrial robot enterprises, and the two sectors both witnessed a growth of over 30 percent this year.

In Shanghai’s Changning district, robot chefs are cooking tasty meals for customers, and lines are winding outside an unattended coffee shop where great drinks are prepared full-automatically in a 2.5-square meter glass room.

Unmanned economy is also energizing industry and agricultural production, helping them lower cost and improve efficiency.

In a smart factory of leading Chinese home appliance manufacturer Midea Group in Guangzhou, north China’s Guangdong province, over 200 robotic arms are applied. Thanks to the automatic way of production, the evaporator production line of the company, the operation of which demanded 11 workers to work at the same time, is now attended by only 2 of them, and the production period for an air conditioner is also reduced from over 20 days to 9 days.

On an automatic port in Qingdao, east China’s Shandong province, quay cranes are operating themselves, and autopilot vehicles are shuttling through containers together with the robots that remove lock washers.

According to insiders, AI and 5G, as well as their application in industrial robot, autopilot, and auto loading and stockpiling, will make smart manufacturing possible and promote the cost reduction and efficiency improvement of production, logistics and services, by handling monotonous, complicated, tough and dangerous work to machines.

Unmanned tractors, smart harvesters, smart weeding machines, milking robots, and agricultural automation and control systems have exerted profound impacts on agricultural production, propelling the development of smart agriculture.

New businesses in contactless services such as autopilot, unmanned delivery, and unmanned retailing are creating new consumption scenarios, and many of them have already started operation in major cities.

Statistics indicated that as of the end of May this year, the number of drone-related enterprises had exceeded 55,000 in China. Besides, there were also 16,000 and 11,000 Chinese companies in the businesses of unmanned retailing and autopilot.

Chain restaurant Xiaoheng Dumplings has recently employed autopilot delivery vehicles to send meals to customers in Beijing. These vehicles are able to carry 40 sets of meals each, including dumplings, beverage and cold dishes, and the company has promised 30-minute delivery. Such innovative mode boasts higher efficiency, and is also safer and contactless. Besides, Chinese e-commerce giant also opened a drone route in Hebei province to send daily necessities to villagers.

Unmanned economy is seemingly eliminating jobs, but in fact it is creating more with higher quality. “Many colleagues of mine thought they might lose their job due to smart production,” said Zhang Jianguo, an employee of a Shanghai-based water supply company that started intelligentization of its factory years ago. However, when the factory was upgrading, Zhang and his colleagues also improved their expertise through a series of training. Zhang seized the opportunity and became a department manager thanks to his competent capability.

“To ‘take care’ of the robots and keep them in an optimal condition is what makes us competent and enables us to gain a foothold wherever we go,” Zhang said. Robots have replaced certain groups of workers, but they also need maintenance.

According to statistics released by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, China produces around 150,000 industrial robots each year, or 40 percent of the world’s total. China Institute of Electronics (CIE) also released data showing that China is the largest market of industrial robot application. The institute said that the market has been growing at an average rate of 20 percent each year, and robot density in the country has reached 97 robots per 10,000 employees. The density is approaching that in developed countries.

Recently, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and other relevant departments jointly issued a new vocational standard on the maintenance of industrial robots, which chartered the course for future talent cultivation.

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