China will have more robots operating in its production plants by 2017 than any other country as it cranks up automation of its car and electronics factories, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) said on Thursday.
Already the biggest market in the $9.5 billion global robot trade -- or $29 billion including associated software, peripherals and systems engineering -- China lags far behind its more industrialised peers in terms of robot density.
China has just 30 robots per 10,000 workers employed in manufacturing industries, compared with 437 in South Korea, 323 in Japan, 282 in Germany and 152 in the United States.
But a race by carmakers to build plants in China along with wage inflation that has eroded the competitiveness of Chinese labour will push the operational stock of industrial robots to more than double to 428,000 by 2017, the IFR estimates.
"Companies are forced to invest ever more in robots to be more productive and raise quality," said Gudrun Litzenberger, general secretary of the Frankfurt-based IFR.
"In the current phase it's the auto industry, but in the next two or three years it will be driven by the electronics industry," she said.
Japanese robot makers still have the lion's share of the market, with about 60%, but Chinese suppliers are growing fast, with about a quarter of the market. Most of the rest are supplied by European and U.S. manufacturers.
Four foreign robot makers -- Switzerland's ABB, Germany's Kuka, and Japan's Yaskawa and Fanuc -- already have production sites in China and more are expected to follow.
"The automation of China's production plants has just started," said Per Vegard Nerseth, Managing Director of ABB Robotics. "We have witnessed swift, almost explosive growth over the last two or three years, surpassing even our expectations."
The automotive industry is by far the largest customer for robots in China, accounting for about 40% of robots in operation, as China is both the world's biggest car market and its biggest production site.
European carmakers such as Volkswagen and Daimler which have invested heavily in China are bringing their robotics suppliers with them, Litzenberger said.
The electronics industry is expected to follow.
Taiwanese contract manufacturing giant Foxconn, which makes Apple iPhones and iPads among other products, is already making its own Foxbot robots as well as using robots bought from other suppliers.