Source: China Daily
CHANGSHA - Once with a big population and deficient resources, Shaodong county in China's Hunan province is now at a turning point.
Known for its booming private businesses and ambitious entrepreneurs, Shaodong is facing a real bottleneck problem in its hardware sector -- understaffing, though it's home to more than 1.3 million people.
The county's hardware sector has been losing its edge in vital export markets in recent years since the traditional labor-intensive industry relies heavily on manual work.
"It was hard to sustain consistent the quality and output of pincers, since they used to be affected by the manual installment of rubber handles," said 30-year-old local Zhou Shengqiang, who runs two tech companies across the country.
Zhou added that fewer young recruiters are sticking to the job as many of them want higher earnings in big cities, while older workers hardly meet recruitment standards due to their poor eyesight.
Two years ago, Zhou started his second tech business in his hometown of Shaodong to overcome these difficulties, saying the industry's weaknesses can actually be seen as opportunities. "Since the rubber handle procedure is in desperate need of recruits, we should be considering using industrial robots."
Like many other county dwellers in China who move to big cities to seek better opportunities, Zhou had previously moved to China's tech hub of Shenzhen to open his first company, which develops computer, communication and consumer electronics.
When he opened his second company, he relocated part of his R&D team in Shenzhen to Shaodong to begin research on industrial automation.
The high demand for accuracy has brought difficulties to Zhou and his team in their quest for reliability. They have even worked with researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, taking them over eight months to overcome technical problems.
Fifty five year-old Wang Shunde became the first employer of robots at Zhou's Shaodong-based company. As someone with over three decades of experience in the hardware industry, Wang believes robots would gradually free humans from some certain jobs in the years to come.
With the application of robots, the output of pincers at Wang's Shaodong factory has come on leaps and bounds. Before, it would take one employee about eight hours to manufacture 1,500 pincers, but with the help of machines, output has surged by about seven-fold.
Each machine only requires workers to do checks on a routine basis, and with the use of robots, product quality has not suffered.
"The machines also help to ease recruitment pressure," Wang said, adding that robotic automation can help sell more premium hardware products to more overseas markets.
Hardware is a major export product of Shaodong, with an annual production capacity of 300 million tool kits and an annual output of over 2 billion yuan ($290 million).
Currently eyeing a bigger market to help Shaodong's products go global, Zhou believes automation will help the county earn a more competitive reputation worldwide.
In recent years, Shaodong entrepreneurs running companies abroad and in other parts of China have been returning to start their businesses at home.
Zhou said Shaodong people always feel the need to bring back skills to their hometown and contribute to the local economy.
"We're paying more attention to smart manufacturing," said Deng Xingzhao, who works with the county's publicity department.
"Our improving high-tech infrastructure is making Shaodong more competitive," Deng said.