【英语中国】中国的“机器人革命” China’s robot revolution

  • A+
所属分类:双语中国

2016-5-10 20:18

小艾摘要: The Ying Ao sink foundry in southern China’s Guangdong province does not look like a factory of the future. The sign over the entrance is faded; inside, the floor is greasy with patches of mud, and a ...
China’s robot revolution
The Ying Ao sink foundry in southern China’s Guangdong province does not look like a factory of the future. The sign over the entrance is faded; inside, the floor is greasy with patches of mud, and a thick metal dust — the by-product of the stainless-steel polishing process — clogs the air. As workers haul trolleys across the factory floor, the cavernous, shed-like building reverberates with a loud clanging.

Guangdong is the growth engine of China’s manufacturing industry, generating $615bn in exports last year — more than a quarter of the country’s total. In this part of the province, the standard wage for workers is about Rmb4,000 ($600) per month. Ying Ao, which manufactures sinks destined for the kitchens of Europe and the US, has to pay double that, according to deputy manager Chen Conghan, because conditions in the factory are so unpleasant. So, four years ago, the company started buying machines to replace the ever more costly humans.

Nine robots now do the job of 140 full-time workers. Robotic arms pick up sinks from a pile, buff them until they gleam and then deposit them on a self-driving trolley that takes them to a computer-linked camera for a final quality check.

The company, which exports 1,500 sinks a day, spent more than $3m on the robots. “These machines are cheaper, more precise and more reliable than people,” says Chen. “I’ve never had a whole batch ruined by robots. I look forward to replacing more humans in future,” he adds, with a wry smile.

Across the manufacturing belt that hugs China’s southern coastline, thousands of factories like Chen’s are turning to automation in a government-backed, robot-driven industrial revolution the likes of which the world has never seen. Since 2013, China has bought more industrial robots each year than any other country, including high-tech manufacturing giants such as Germany, Japan and South Korea. By the end of this year, China will overtake Japan to be the world’s biggest operator of industrial robots, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), an industry lobby group. The pace of disruption in China is “unique in the history of robots,” says Gudrun Litzenberger, general secretary of the IFR, which is based in Germany, home to some of the world’s leading industrial-robot makers.

China’s technological transformation still has far to go — the country has just 36 robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers, compared with 292 in Germany, 314 in Japan and 478 in South Korea. But it is already changing the face of the global manufacturing industry. In the process, it is raising broader questions: can emerging economies still hope to follow the traditional route to prosperity that the developed world has relied upon since Britain’s industrial revolution in the 18th century? Or will robots assume many of the jobs that once pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty?

?…?

China’s spending splurge on industrial robots has its roots in a pressing economic problem. From the 1980s onwards, as Beijing’s Communist rulers opened up to global trade, the country’s huge, cheap workforce helped make it the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods. Breakneck economic growth lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty and transformed swaths of the country, as workers migrated from the countryside to the city. But a growing middle class and an ageing population have led to rising wages, eroding China’s competitive advantage. Partly because of the one-child policy, formally phased out in 2015, China’s working-age population is expected to fall from one billion people last year to 960 million in 2030, and 800 million by 2050.

In recent years, China’s central planners have been promoting automation as a way to fill the labour gap. They have promised generous subsidies — to be doled out by local governments — to smooth the way for Chinese companies both to use and build robots. In 2014, President Xi Jinping called for a “robot revolution” that would transform first China, and then the world. “Our country will be the biggest market for robots,” he said in a speech to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, “but can our technology and manufacturing capacity cope with the competition? Not only do we need to upgrade our robots, we also need to capture markets in many places.”

The march of the machines, not just in China but around the world, has been accelerated by sharp falls in the price of industrial robots and a steady increase in their capabilities. Boston Consulting Group, a management consultancy, predicts that the price of industrial robots and their enabling software will drop by 20 per cent over the next decade, while their performance will improve by 5 per cent each year.

Liu Hui, an entrepreneur in his forties, is making the most of China’s robot boom. In 2001, when he opened his first factory in Foshan, an industrial city of seven million people in Guangdong, he started out making knock-offs of electric fans. As his business grew, he moved to bona fide manufacturing, producing components for Chinese home appliance brands. Then, in 2012, spotting an opportunity in a growing market, he jumped into the emerging world of robotics. Liu now imports robotic arms from suppliers such as the Swedish-Swiss conglomerate ABB, and sells them on to Chinese manufacturers, helping them integrate the machines into their production lines. It is a highly specialised business. Most of his customers are component-makers who supply motors and other parts to large Chinese home-appliance brands such as Midea and Galanz, which produce air conditioners, refrigerators and more.

Business has expanded so quickly in the past year that Liu does not have enough space in his factory for all the machinery he is assembling. He has to store parts designed to support a $23,000 ABB robot under a makeshift lean-to outside. “Things are changing rapidly,” he says. “The cost of labour is rising every year, and young people don’t want to work on the production line like their parents did, so we need machines to replace them.”

The stereotypical image of China’s factories can still be found in many places: tens of thousands of people in long lines hunched over sewing machines or slotting components into a printed circuit board. But that mode of manufacturing is starting to be replaced by a more mixed picture: partially automated production lines, with human workers interspersed at a few key points.

Meanwhile, China is developing its own robot makers. In September last year, Ningbo Techmation, a Shanghai-listed producer of machinery for the plastics industry, launched a subsidiary, E-Deodar, making robots that are 20-30 per cent cheaper than those produced by international companies such as ABB, Germany’s Kuka or Japan’s Kawasaki. The E-Deodar factory in Foshan, with its café, chill-out zone and open-plan production line, looks more like the offices of a Silicon Valley tech start-up than a Chinese industrial workhorse. “Our global rivals are very good at making robots but their costs are higher and they are not so good at understanding the needs of local customers,” says Zhang Honglei, the company’s 35-year-old, spiky-haired technical director.

This year, Zhang plans to produce 350 distinctively green-coloured robots, which are designed for use in plastic factories and sell for between $14,000 and $18,000 each; in three years’ time he hopes to produce 3,000 a year. “We have to move fast because automation is a scale business,” he says. “The bigger the better.”

Chinese manufacturers, which bought 66,000 of the 240,000 industrial robots sold globally last year, still largely prefer to buy international brands, according to Litzenberger of the IFR. But she expects that to change, particularly in the wake of the Beijing government throwing its full support behind the domestic robot industry in recent years. “They are developing very fast,” she says.

At an imposing, colonnade-fronted government building — known locally as the “White House” — in the Shunde district of Foshan, officials are trying to put President Xi’s call for a robot revolution into practice. The province of Guangdong has vowed to invest $8bn between 2015 and 2017 on automation. Zhang Peng, vice-director of Shunde’s economy and technology bureau, recently had his office in the building reduced in size, in line with the Communist party’s call for bureaucratic austerity. But the budget for industrial automation was unaffected. Zhang says robots are vital to overcome labour shortages and help Chinese companies make better quality, more competitive products. Unusually straight-talking for a Chinese official, he warns: “If manufacturing companies don’t improve, they won’t be able to survive.”

?…?

Government support for the integration of ever cheaper and more efficient industrial robots is good news for factory owners in China, who are facing a weak global economy and a slowdown in domestic demand. But the benefits of the robot revolution will not be shared equally across the world. Developing countries from India to Indonesia and Egypt to Ethiopia have long hoped to follow the example of China, as well as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan before them: stimulating job creation and economic growth by moving agricultural workers into low-cost factories to make goods for export. Yet the rise of automation means that industrialisation is likely to generate significantly fewer jobs for the next generation of emerging economies. “Today’s low-income countries will not have the same possibility of achieving rapid growth by shifting workers from farms to higher-paying factory jobs,” researchers from the US investment bank Citi and the University of Oxford concluded in a recent report, The Future Is Not What It Used to Be, on the impact of technological change.

They argue that China’s rising labour costs are a “silver lining” for the country because they are driving technological advancement, in much the same way that an increase in wages in 18th-century Britain provided impetus to the world’s first industrial revolution. At the same time, according to Johanna Chua, an economist at Citi in Hong Kong, industrial laggards in parts of Asia and Africa face a “race against the machines” as they struggle to create sufficient manufacturing jobs before they are wiped out by the gathering robot army in China and beyond.

Tom Lembong, Indonesia’s 45-year-old trade minister, and a leading voice for liberalisation and reform within the government of Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, is aware of the risks. “Many people don’t realise we’re seeing a quantum leap in robotics,” he says. “It’s a huge concern and we need to acknowledge the looming threat of this new industrial revolution. But as a political and business elite, we’re still stuck on debates about industrialisation that were settled in the 20th and even 19th centuries.”

Countries such as Indonesia are already suffering from something that the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik has dubbed “premature de-industrialisation”. This describes a trend where emerging economies see their manufacturing sector begin to shrink long before the countries have reached income levels comparable to the developed world. Despite rapid economic growth over the past 15 years, Indonesia saw its manufacturing industry’s share of the economy peak in 2002. Analysts believe this is partly because of a failure to invest in infrastructure, and the country’s uncompetitive trade and investment policy, and partly due to globalisation.

Rodrik believes the country will never be able to grow at the kind of rapid rate experienced by China or South Korea. “Traditionally, manufacturing required very few skills and employed a lot of people,” he says. “Because of automation, the skills required have increased significantly and many fewer people are employed to run factories. What do you do with these extra workers? They won’t turn into IT entrepreneurs or entertainers; and, if they become restaurant workers, they will be paid much less than in a factory.”

The spread of robots makes it much harder for developing countries to get on the “escalator” of economic growth, he argues. That is bad news for the estimated two million young people who enter the workforce every year in Indonesia, a nation of 255 million, where 40 per cent live on $3 a day or less. Mahami Jaya Lumbanraja, a 22-year-old job-seeker on the Indonesian industrial island of Batam, is feeling the effects of the premature de-industrialisation phenomenon. For seven months he has been looking for a factory job in Batam, which sits just 20 miles from prosperous Singapore, but he has had no luck. Wearing faded jeans, a grey hoodie and an endearing smile, Lumbanraja says that although he has one year of experience working for Shimano, the Japanese manufacturer of bicycle gears and fishing tackle, he is not experienced enough to secure anything more than an entry-level position, and that there are many more job hunters than openings. “I can survive on the little money I get from busking and helping friends with construction work but I must get a proper factory job to save enough money so I can set up my own small shop later,” he says. Wages in Batam — around $230 per month — are double what Lumbanraja could earn in his home city of Medan, on the island of Sumatra. So he feels he must stay until he finds work.

Lumbanraja is one of about 700 Indonesians in their late teens and early twenties who visit the community centre at the Batamindo industrial park every day looking for work. In February, 3,000 people applied in person for just 80 positions at a Japanese-owned wiring factory there, a gathering so large that executives initially feared it was a labour protest.

Batamindo is a joint venture between Singaporean and Indonesian investors that was backed by Presidents Lee Kuan Yew and Suharto — the two nations’ respective rulers — when it opened in 1990. Intended as the showpiece of Indonesia’s industrialisation strategy, it has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with it. In recent times, an average of five factories a year have left the industrial park for other countries and the number of people employed there has dropped to just 46,000, from a peak of 80,000 in 2000. That is despite the fact that wages today are between one-third and one-half of the level paid in China’s Guangdong province.

Lembong, a Harvard graduate who ran his own Singapore-based private equity firm before he was appointed trade minister in August, says the government is determined to tackle the twin problems at the heart of Indonesia’s economic malaise: weak infrastructure and over-regulation.

But some argue that reform will come too late. During its period of rapid industrialisation, China invested in the modern highways, railways and ports necessary to support its manufacturing sector. In contrast, the physical infrastructure in Batam and much of Indonesia has “not changed much since the 1970s,” says Mook Sooi Wah, general manager of Batamindo.

Indonesia actually had a slightly higher “robot density” than China when the latest figures were collated by the International Federation of Robotics in 2014, although the situation is likely to have changed dramatically since then given the pace of Beijing’s automation push. This anomaly was largely the result of China’s manufacturing workforce being so much bigger than that of Indonesia, which still has no government plan or backing for industrial automation.

Indonesia’s regulatory process is as fusty as its infrastructure. Recently, legitimate shipments from a paper factory were held by customs at the Batam port because of a rule meant to stop the export of illegally sourced wood. These problems leave even Batam’s boosters exasperated.

Stefan Roll, a German manufacturing veteran who worked in China during its industrial take-off in the 1990s, enjoys living and working in Indonesia. But he worries that the country is missing its “golden opportunity” to become efficient enough to compete on a global scale. “When you are dealing with multinationals, time is money,” Roll says as he shows off his new factory in Batam, which assembles coffee machines for Nestlé. “But you can only do just-in-time manufacturing if you have good roads and infrastructure.”

While few doubt the depth of the challenges facing developing countries, not everyone sees the dilemma in such bleak terms. With wages in countries such as Indonesia and India much lower than in China and their populations still relatively young, some analysts believe they can attract more labour-intensive industries, such as garment-making, where widespread automation is not yet suitable.

“As China moves up the industrial chain, it’s actually freeing up a lot of opportunities for Southeast Asia and India,” says Anderson Chow, a robotics industry analyst at the investment bank HSBC, in Hong Kong.

Hal Sirkin, an expert on manufacturing at Boston Consulting Group, says that from the perspective of an economy such as India’s, it does not make sense to automate now because it would drive up the price of goods — “when they have one billion people who can make things cheaply”. He is among the tech optimists who believe that, in the medium term, automation will also create new business niches for emerging economies, mitigating the damage from the jobs that will be eradicated.

“We think you’re going to see more localisation rather than more scale,” says Sirkin. “I can put up a plant, change the software and manufacture all sorts of things, not in the hundreds of millions but runs of five million or 10 million units.”

But Carl Frey, an expert on employment and technology at the University of Oxford, warns that without better education and more skills, developing countries will struggle to take advantage of advancements in manufacturing.

“Technology is becoming increasingly skill-based,” he says. “Many of these countries don’t have a skilled workforce so they’re not very good at adopting these technologies.”

?…?

China itself is not immune from the negative consequences of automation. More than 40 per cent of its 1.4 billion population still live in the countryside, many in poverty, having benefited only marginally from the urban economic miracle.

But the government is betting that the benefits of promoting cutting-edge manufacturing will outweigh the damage from the potential jobs lost. The industrial strategy announced by Beijing last year — known as Made in China 2025 — is designed not only to improve the technological capability of its factories but also to support the development of Chinese brands internationally.

Chow, the HSBC analyst, says that as Chinese companies try to increase their exports to alleviate the impact of the domestic slowdown, they are likely to focus more on the quality of their products: “Quite often part of that development is a better production process, involving robotics.”

Every year, the amount of time it takes for a company’s investment in a robot to pay off — known as the “payback period” — is narrowing sharply, making it more attractive for small Chinese companies and workshops to invest in automation. The payback period for a welding robot in the Chinese automotive industry, for instance, dropped from 5.3 years to 1.7 years between 2010 and 2015, according to calculations by analysts at Citi. By 2017, the payback period is forecast to shrink to just 1.3 years.

Automation is not just about putting cheaper and more efficient robot arms on the production line. Li Gan, the general manager of Shangpin Home Collection, which makes and sells customised home furniture, says the greater opportunity is to integrate robots on the factory floor with real-time data from customers and automated logistics systems.

Thanks to the use of robots, the factory that Shangpin opened in Foshan in 2014 was 40 per cent more productive than its previous plant, even though it employs 20 per cent fewer people. Later this year, it will start up the machines at its newest and biggest production base, where it hopes to improve productivity fourfold with just double the number of staff, by using more robots to move supplies around the factory floor and help pack outbound shipping containers.

Drilling wooden slats for the company’s diverse range of beds, wardrobes and other bespoke furniture used to be a painstaking and sometimes dangerous process. Now a worker simply picks up each piece of wood, scans a barcode and puts the wood on a conveyor belt that takes it to the robot arm. The finished product returns on another belt. The process in between is strikingly complicated: Shangpin had to design a device to make sure that each slat would be aligned in the right way for it to be grasped by the robot arm, and the drilling specifications for the slats have to be pre-programmed and recorded in a barcode, because the robots do not yet have any artificial intelligence capability. Li Gan points out that human oversight and decision-making is still crucial. “Automation is just a technical process but what is more important is our thinking about how best to do this,” he says. “Every time we change something, we ask: is it more effective to do this using humans or robots?”

Boston Consulting Group forecasts that the percentage of tasks handled by advanced robots will rise from 8 per cent today to 26 per cent by the end of the decade, driven by China, Germany, Japan, South Korea and the US, which together will account for 80 per cent of robot purchases. Sirkin at BCG says that the rapid expansion of automation could be compared to the difference between the “human learning curve” and Moore’s Law, which posited that computing power could double every 18 months to two years. “Even if you’re very good, humans can only double their productivity at best every 10 years,” he says. In contrast, researchers can push robots to double their productivity every four years, he estimates. “Compounded over time, that makes a big difference.”

As China and other industrial leaders build more and better robots, the tasks they can take on will expand. Butchery, for example, was long considered the sort of skill that machines would struggle to develop, because of the need for careful hand-eye co-ordination and the manipulation of non-uniform slabs of meat. But Sirkin has watched robots cut the fat off meat much more efficiently than humans, thanks to the use of cheaper and more responsive sensors. “It’s becoming economically feasible to use machines to do this because you save another 3 or 4 per cent of the meat — and that’s worth a lot on a production line, where you can move quickly.

“There are things that humans can do better than robots,” he adds. “But they are getting less and less.”

Ben Bland is the FT’s South China correspondent and a former Indonesia correspondent

Photographs by Zeng Han and Muhammad Fadli

位于中国广东省的樱奥厨具(Ying Ao)看起来并不像一家未来的工厂。厂门上方的招牌已经褪色;车间里,油腻的地板上有一滩一滩的淤泥,浓重的金属粉尘(不锈钢抛光工艺的副产品)让人喘不过气。工人们拉着手推车走过时,空洞的、车棚一般的厂房里回响着巨大的哐当声。

广东省是中国制造业增长的发动机,去年创造了6150亿美元的出口额,超过了中国出口总额的四分之一。在广东省的这一地区,工人的薪资标准约为每月4000元人民币(合600美元)。据樱奥副总经理陈从汉介绍,由于厂内的劳动条件不是太好,这家为欧美厨房生产水槽的企业不得不支付双倍于上述标准的工资。因此,四年前该公司开始购买机器,代替越来越昂贵的人力。

如今,9台机器人在做着140名全职工人的工作。机械臂会从半成品堆中抓起水槽,把它们打磨得闪闪发亮,再把它们放在自动行驶的小车上,由其把这些水槽带到一个与电脑相连的摄像头前,进行最终的质量检验。

这家每天出口1500个水槽的企业在机器人上的投资超过300万美元。陈从汉表示:“这些机器比人力更便宜、更精确、更可靠。机器人从未毁掉一批产品。”他带着一丝苦笑补充说:“我希望未来能换掉更多人力。”

在整个中国南方沿海制造业地带,成千上万个与陈从汉所在工厂类似的厂家正在向自动化转型。这是一场政府支持的、由机器人带动的工业革命,其规模之浩大是世界从未见过的。自2013年以来,中国每年采购的工业机器人超过了其他任何国家,包括德国、日本和韩国等高科技制造业巨人。根据产业游说组织——国际机器人联合会(International Federation of Robotics,IFR)的说法,到今年底,中国将超过日本,成为全球运用工业机器人最多的国家。IFR总干事古德龙?利岑贝格尔(Gudrun Litzenberger)表示,中国颠覆性变化的速度是“机器人历史上独一无二的”。该组织的总部位于德国,这里是世界上一些顶尖工业机器人制造商的所在地。

中国技术转型仍有很长的路要走,目前中国每1万名制造业工人只有36部机器人,相比之下德国为292部,日本为314部,韩国则为478部。不过,中国已经在改变全球制造业的面貌。在这一过程中,中国正在引发更大层面的疑问:新兴经济体还能不能指望依靠传统的发展道路(自18世纪英国工业革命以来发达国家曾依赖过的道路)致富?抑或机器人将会接手曾经让数亿人摆脱贫困的许多职位?

樱奥厨具副总经理陈从汉:“这些机器比人力更便宜、更精确、更可靠。”

政府推动的“机器人革命”

中国在工业机器人上的大举投入,源自一个迫切的经济问题。从上世纪80年代以来,随着北京的共产党统治者向全球贸易打开大门,庞大而廉价的劳动力帮助中国成为全球最大的制成品出口国。迅猛的经济增长令数亿中国人摆脱了贫困,并随着劳动者从农村迁居城镇,转变了中国大片地区的面貌。然而,日益壮大的中产阶层和人口老龄化导致中国的薪资水平不断攀升,削弱了中国的竞争优势。中国的劳动力人口预计会从去年的10亿降至2030年的9.6亿,到2050年进一步滑落至8亿。这在一定程度上是已经在2015年正式废止的一胎化的结果。

近年中国的中央规划者一直在推动自动化,作为填补劳动力缺口的一条途径。他们承诺提供慷慨的补贴(由地方政府发放),为中国企业使用和建造机器人铺平道路。2014年,中国国家主席习近平呼吁掀起一场“机器人革命”,首先改变中国,进而改变世界。他在对中国科学院(Chinese Academy of Sciences)的一次讲话中表示:“我国将成为机器人的最大市场,但我们的技术和制造能力能不能应对这场竞争?我们不仅要把我国机器人水平提高上去,而且要尽可能多地占领市场。”

工业机器人价格大幅下降而能力稳步增加,加速了机器人在中国乃至世界各地的进军。管理咨询公司波士顿咨询集团(Boston Consulting Group)预计,未来10年,工业机器人及其配套软件的价格将下降20%,而它们的性能将以每年5%的幅度提升。

机器人长得越像人类越好吗?

现年40多岁的创业家刘晖正在充分利用中国的机器人繁荣。2001年,他在广东佛山(一座拥有700万人口的工业城市)创办了自己的第一家工厂,制造廉价电风扇。随着企业逐渐壮大,他开始涉足正经的制造业,为中国家电品牌生产零部件。后来,由于看到了不断扩大的机器人市场中的机遇,他在2012年投身于新兴的机器人世界。如今,刘晖从供应商(如瑞士-瑞典跨国集团ABB)进口机械臂,然后卖给中国制造商,并帮助把机械臂集成至客户的生产线。这是一项高度专业化的业务。他的大部分客户都是零部件制造商,他们为中国知名家电品牌——如生产空调、冰箱等家电的美的(Midea)、格兰仕(Galanz)——供应电动机及其他部件。

伊雪松机器人设备有限公司:机械手臂经过编程,以完成重复性的任务。

过去一年,由于业务扩张速度非常快,以至于刘晖的工厂已经容不下正在装配的所有机械。他不得不在厂房外临时搭建棚子,存放用来支持一款2.3万美元的ABB机器人的组件。“情况变化很快,”他说,“劳动力成本年年上升,年轻人不想像父母那样在生产线上工作,所以,我们需要机器人来替代他们。”

典型的中国工厂画面仍可在很多地方看到:长长的流水线上,成千上万的工人埋头操作缝纫机,或是将一个个组件插入印刷电路板。但这种制造模式正开始被一种更为混合的画面取代:只在几个关键点上需要人工操作的半自动化生产线。

与此同时,中国正在扶持本土机器人制造商的发展。去年9月,在上海上市的塑料工业机械生产商宁波弘讯科技(Ningbo Techmation)创立了一家子公司——广东伊雪松机器人设备有限公司(E-Deodar),其生产的机器人比ABB、德国库卡(Kuka)或日本川崎重工(Kawasaki)等跨国公司的产品便宜20%至30%。伊雪松的工厂设在佛山,厂内有咖啡馆、放松区以及开放式生产线,看上去更像一家硅谷科技初创企业的办公室,而非传统的中国工厂。该公司35岁、头发竖起的技术总监张洪磊表示:“我们的全球竞争对手非常擅长制造机器人,但他们的成本较高,而且不是太懂本地客户的需求。”

张洪磊计划今年制造350台鲜艳的绿色涂装机器人,这些机器人将被用在塑料制品厂,每台售价在1.4万至1.8万美元之间;他希望3年后年产量达到3000台。“我们必须迅速行动,因为自动化是一项规模产业,”他说,“规模越大越好”。

国际机器人联合会的利岑贝格尔认为,购买了去年全球24万台工业机器人销量中的6.6万台的中国制造商,基本上仍偏爱购买国际品牌。但她预计这种情况将改变,尤其是在中国政府近年全力支持国内机器人产业的背景下。“他们发展得非常快,”她说。

佛山市顺德区经济和科技促进局副局长张鹏

在佛山市顺德区政府大楼(这栋宏伟建筑物的正立面用巨型石柱装饰,被当地人称为“白宫”)里,官员们正设法响应国家主席习近平主席的机器人革命呼吁。广东省已宣布,在2015至2017年向自动化产业投资80亿美元。为了响应中共节俭办公的号召,顺德区经济和科技促进局副局长张鹏在这座大楼里的办公室最近缩减了面积。但工业自动化方面的预算未受影响。张鹏说,机器人对于克服劳动力短缺、帮助中国企业生产出品质更好、竞争力更强的产品至关重要。他以中国官员中不常见的直率口吻警告称:“如果制造企业不升级,他们将无法生存。”

“与机器的赛跑”

中国政府对于在生产线上集成价格越来越低、效率越来越高的工业机器人的支持,对于面临全球经济疲弱和国内需求放缓的中国厂商来说是个好消息。但是,机器人革命的效益并不是全球平等共享的。从印度到印尼,从埃及到埃塞俄比亚,发展中国家长期以来一直希望效仿中国、以及更早实现经济起飞的日本、韩国和台湾:鼓励农业人口进入制造出口商品的低成本工厂,从而刺激就业创造和经济增长。然而自动化的崛起意味着,工业化为下一批新兴经济体带来的就业机会很可能少得多。“如今的低收入国家将不会有相同的可能性,即通过让农场劳动者进入工资更高的工厂来实现迅速增长,”美国投行花旗(Citi)和牛津大学(University of Oxford)的研究员在最近发表的关于技术变革的影响的报告《未来不同于过去》(The Future Is Not What It Used to Be)中得出结论称。

他们认为,不断上升的劳动力成本对中国而言是乌云中的一道曙光,因为它正在推动技术进步,就像18世纪英国工资上涨为世界第一场工业革命提供推动力一样。与此同时,常驻香港的花旗经济学家蔡真真(Johanna Chua)表示,亚洲和非洲一些工业落后的经济体面临着“与机器的赛跑”:竭力赶在被中国等工业化经济体日益壮大的机器人大军消灭之前,创造足够的制造业就业岗位。

现年45岁的印尼贸易部长汤姆?伦邦(Tom Lembong)是这个东南亚最大经济体的政府内部主张自由化和改革的领军人物,他意识到了这些风险。“很多人还没意识到我们正在目睹机器人的飞跃发展,”他表示,“这是一个令人担忧的大问题,我们要明白这场新的工业革命扑面而来的威胁。但是,我国的政界和商界精英仍然纠结于围绕20世纪甚至19世纪工业化模式的辩论。”

印尼等国已经遭遇了哈佛大学经济学家达尼?罗德里克(Dani Rodrik)所称的“过早去工业化”。它描述的趋势是,新兴经济体在收入远未达到发达国家水平之前,制造业便开始萎缩。尽管过去15年印尼经济迅速发展,但是其制造业占经济的比重在2002年便已见顶。分析师们认为,部分原因在于印尼未能投资于基础设施、贸易和投资政策不具竞争力,部分原因在于全球化。

罗德里克认为,印尼永远都不会出现中国或韩国所经历过的那种迅速增长。“传统上,制造业不需要太多技能,雇用大量人口,”他表示,“由于自动化的发展,制造业的技能要求显著增加,工厂运转所需的工人数量大幅减少。那些剩下的工人怎么办?他们成不了IT企业家和艺人;而如果他们在餐馆打工,他们的工资将远低于在工厂打工。”

每年有五家工厂离开印尼巴淡岛的这个工业园

他认为,机器人的普及使发展中国家更难搭上经济增长的“自动扶梯”。这对印尼每年新增的估计200万就业人口来说是个坏消息。印尼总人口2.55亿,其中40%的人口每日依靠不超过3美元度日。22岁的马哈米?贾耶?伦班拉贾(Mahami Jaya Lumbanraja)正在工厂比较集中的印尼巴淡(Batam)岛上找工作,他已经感受到了“过早去工业化”的影响。7个月来,他一直在巴淡岛(距离繁荣的新加坡仅20英里)寻找工厂职位,但至今没有碰上好运。身着褪色牛仔裤和灰色帽衫、脸上挂着可爱笑容的伦班拉贾称,尽管他有在禧玛诺(Shimano,生产自行车变速器和钓鱼用具的日资制造商)一年的工作经验,但他的经验不足以使他得到比初级工更高的职位,而求职者的人数远多于空缺岗位。“我能靠街头表演和帮朋友干建筑活赚点钱维持生计,但是我必须得到一份正式的工厂工作,才能存下足够钱,以后开一家自己的小店,”他表示。巴淡岛的工资水平——月均230美元左右——是伦班拉贾在其家乡棉兰市(Medan,位于苏门答腊岛)能赚到的收入的两倍。所以他觉得自己必须在巴淡岛坚持下去,一定要找到工作。

每天约有700名20岁上下的印尼年轻人到巴淡民都工业园(Batamindo Industrial Park)的社区中心找工作,伦班拉贾是其中之一。2月,一家日资电线厂在那里招聘80个岗位,但吸引了3000人前来申请。当时聚集的人太多,以至于工厂高管起初还担心是劳工抗议。

马哈米?贾耶?伦班拉贾是每天赴巴淡民都找工作的700名印尼人之一

巴淡民都工业园是新加坡投资者和印尼投资者的合资项目,1990年创立时得到两国时任领导人——李光耀(Lee Kuan Yew)和苏哈托(Suharto)的支持。该工业园的初衷是展示印尼工业化战略,结果却成为该战略各种失误的象征。近年来,平均每年有5家工厂离开该工业园,迁往其他国家。在2000年鼎盛时期,整个园区有8万名雇员,如今则只有4.6万人——尽管这里的工资只有中国广东省水平的三分之一至二分之一。

毕业于哈佛大学的伦邦在去年8月被任命为印尼贸易部长之前,在新加坡经营着一家自己的私募公司。他表示,印尼政府决心着手解决导致印尼经济凋敝的两大核心问题:基础设施薄弱和监管过度。

但一些人指出,现在改革为时已晚。中国在快速工业化时期,大力投资建设现代化的公路、铁路和港口等支持国内制造业发展的基础设施。相比之下,巴淡民都工业园总经理Mook Sooi Wah表示,巴淡岛以及印尼其他许多地方的基础设施“从上世纪70年代以来没有多大变化”。

根据国际机器人联合会2014年整理的最新数据,印尼的“机器人密度”实际上略高于中国,尽管鉴于中国政府在大力推动自动化,自那以来情况可能已经发生了很大变化。这种异常现象主要是由于中国的制造业劳动者队伍规模比印尼大得多,印尼政府至今没有推动工业自动化的计划,也没有提供任何支持。

印尼的监管流程与其基础设施一样过时。最近,由于一项旨在堵住非法采伐木材出口渠道的规则,一家造纸厂发运的一批正当货物被海关扣留在巴淡港。即便是热爱巴淡岛的人士也对诸如此类的问题愤怒不已。

德国制造业老将斯蒂芬?罗尔(Stefan Roll)上世纪90年代中国工业起飞时期曾在中国工作。他如今很享受在印尼的生活和工作,但他担心印尼正在错失“黄金机遇”,无法以足够高的效率在全球舞台上展开竞争。“当你和跨国公司打交道时,时间就是金钱,”罗尔在带着记者参观他在巴淡岛的新工厂时说道,该厂为雀巢(Nestlé)组装咖啡机。“但你必须有很好的道路和基础设施才能从事‘即时制造’。”

尽管没什么人怀疑发展中国家面临着深刻挑战,但不是所有人都这么悲观地看待这种两难困境。由于印尼、印度等国的工资水平比中国低很多,加上它们的人口相对年轻,一些分析师认为这些国家应该能够吸引劳动密集度较高的产业,比如服装生产,这些行业还不适合普及自动化。

“随着中国向产业链上方移动,它实际上在向东南亚和印度输送大量机遇。”汇丰(HSBC)驻香港的机器人行业分析师周正峰(Anderson Chow)表示。

波士顿咨询公司(Boston Consulting Group)的制造业专家哈尔?西尔金(Hal Sirkin)表示,从印度这样的经济体的视角看,“在他们有10亿人可以廉价地生产东西的时候”,搞自动化没什么意思,因为那会推高产品价格。他和其他一些技术乐观派认为,在中期内,自动化也将为新兴经济体开辟新的业务领域,缓解就业岗位被自动化取代的影响。

“我们认为你会看到更多的本地化,而不是更大的规模。”西尔金说道,“我可以开家工厂,改变软件,制造各种各样的东西,每批产量达到500万或是1000万件,而不是几亿。”

但牛津大学的就业和科技业专家卡尔?弗雷(Carl Frey)警告说,如果不提供更好的教育和培养更多技能,发展中国家将难以利用制造业进步所带来的好处。

“科技日益以技能为底子,”他说,“许多发展中国家并没有形成熟练工人群体,所以他们不是很擅长采用这些新技术。”

通过用机器人切割木板和在木板上打孔,尚品宅配这家工厂将生产率提高了40%

自动化的负面后果

中国本身也不能避免自动化的负面后果。中国14亿人口中仍有40%以上居住在农村,许多人生活贫困,他们从城市经济发展奇迹中受益很小。

但中国政府确信,促进尖端制造产业发展的好处将大于潜在就业岗位流失的损害。北京方面去年宣布了一项工业战略,即《中国制造2025》,其宗旨不只是提升中国工厂的技术实力,还要支持中国品牌在国际上的发展。

汇丰分析师周正峰表示,随着中国企业努力扩大出口以缓解国内市场放缓的冲击,它们很可能会更关注产品质量:“这往往意味着它们采用涉及机器人的更先进的生产流程。”

每年,企业收回机器人投资所需的时间——即“投资回报期”——都会大幅缩短,使自动化投资对中国小企业和工厂具有更大吸引力。以中国汽车制造业为例,花旗分析师的计算显示,2010年到2015年,焊接机器人的投资回报期已从5.3年降至1.7年。到2017年,投资回报期预计会降至仅1.3年。

佛山尚品宅配副总裁黎干

自动化并不是仅仅把更便宜、效率更高的机械臂投放到生产线上。尚品宅配家居股份有限公司(Shangpin Home Collection)生产和销售定制家具。该集团副总裁黎干表示,更大的机遇在于把车间第一线的机器人和来自客户以及自动化物流系统的实时数据融合到一起。

得益于机器人的使用,尚品2014年在佛山投产的工厂的产量比前一家工厂提高了40%,尽管雇佣人数减少了20%。今年晚些时候,尚品最新、最大的生产基地将会投产。尚品希望,仅仅增加一倍人手,便把产量增加3倍,办法就是使用更多机器人在车间里搬运物料,并帮助把产品装入发运集装箱。

为该公司不同规格的床、衣柜和其他定制家具所用的木板钻孔,过去是一道艰巨、有时还有危险的工序。如今,一名工人只需要捡起每块木板,扫描条形码,把木板放到一条传送带上,由其传递给机械臂。成品返回到另一条传送带上。中间的工序非常复杂:尚品不得不设计一种装置,以确保每块木板都排列正确,能够被机械臂抓到,木板钻孔要求预先编程并记录到一个条形码中,因为那些机器人尚不具备人工智能。黎干指出,人类管理和决策仍是至关重要的。“自动化只是一道技术工序,更重要的是我们对于如何最好完成工序的思考,”他说。“每次改动什么的时候,我们都会问:人还是机器人,用谁来做这个更有效?”

波士顿咨询集团预测,在中国、德国、日本、韩国和美国的推动下,到本十年结束时,由先进机器人承担的任务比例将从目前的8%上升至26%。这5个国家的机器人购买量将占到全球购买总量的80%。波士顿咨询集团的西尔金说,自动化的快速普及可以跟“人类学习曲线”和摩尔定律(Moore’s Law)之间的差别相提并论。摩尔定律认为,运算能力每18个月至2年就会提升1倍。“即便你很优秀,人的生产率充其量每10年能够提高1倍。”他估计,相比之下,研究人员可以让机器人每4年把生产率提高1倍。“复合增长率意味着,随着时间推移,这会产生很大的差别。”

随着中国等领先工业国制造出更多、更好的机器人,它们可以承担的任务将会增多。比如,长期以来,肉类加工一直被认为是机器难以掌握的一种技能,因为这需要细腻的手眼配合,以及对不规则形状肉块的处理。但西尔金观察到,机器人能够以比人高得多的效率把肉块上的肥肉剔掉,得益于成本更低、反应更灵敏的传感器。“用机器来做这个在经济上变得可行,因为你可以多省下3%或4%的肉,而那在一条生产线上是有很大价值的,你可以在生产线上快速移动。”

“有些事情,人比机器人做得更好,”他接着说。“但这类事越来越少了。”

本文作者为英国《金融时报》驻华南记者,曾任FT驻印尼记者

照片由Zeng Han和穆罕默德?法德利(Muhammad Fadli)提供

译者/何黎

本文关键字:双语阅读,小艾英语,双语网站,双语中国,实时资讯,互联网新闻,ERWAS,行业解析,创业指导,营销策略,英语学习,可以双语阅读的网站!
  • 我的微信
  • 扫一扫加关注
  • weinxin
  • 微信公众号
  • 扫一扫加关注
  • weinxin

发表评论

:?: :razz: :sad: :evil: :!: :smile: :oops: :grin: :eek: :shock: :???: :cool: :lol: :mad: :twisted: :roll: :wink: :idea: :arrow: :neutral: :cry: :mrgreen: