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Samsung’s Korean robot factories aim to cut dependency on China

Tue 20 Oct 2015

It’s interesting to note how much the automation cold war is being fuelled not by superior advances in the opposition’s technology-set, but by the fact that China is in a position to throw real people at production-line problems that it can’t yet solve without involving them, despite being keen to maintain its edge in eliminating people from production. Hence the spin that has been put on Samsung’s announcement that it intends to create robot factories in South Korea capable of returning a competitive edge to countries which – like Samsung itself – are currently dependent on China’s formidable manpower resources.

Yonhap carried the story yesterday about Samsung’s advisory and guiding role in leading Korea away from import dependence to increasing autonomy as a tech producer. The country is already the fourth most automated technology manufacturer in the world, but China’s lead is considerable.

Since South Korea relies on China for so many components and assemblies, the prospect of increased automation represents employment opportunities for the country, rather than the shadow of automation which hangs over many western high-volume employers in this period. Anyone asking ‘What have the robots ever done for us?’ is unlikely to win the argument in South Korea:

south-korea-employment-rate-decade

Employment rates in South Korea 2006-2015, source: tradingeconomics.com

The Samsung investment scheme will see 17.75bn won (£9.5+bn | $14.8bn) of taxpayer revenue funnelled into ‘key components’ that will permit further robot production over the next three years, so it’s a Von Neumann that is going to be needing a little meatware help at the beginning. The anticipated industrial robot infrastructure will be placed at the service of smaller and mid-sized robotics companies, with initial focus on technology production covering sectors such as cars, computer chips, displays and semiconductors. Up until that point Korea’s own needs are well-served. Beyond that the extension of automation into base areas such as plastics production, chemicals, metal goods and food is likely to level off the 45-degree rise in the above chart in South Korea’s working demographics.

According to the report, the South Korean Ministry of Trade said that the predicted production of six-axis vertical articulated robots will allow manufacturers ‘to be less reliant on cheap labour to make products.’, and claimed that the efforts would bring ‘far-reaching innovations to the manufacturing sector.’

Items which fall within the purview of the Samsung initiative include ‘speed reducers, motors, controllers and sensor encoders that are currently expensive and imported from abroad.’

It seems likely that other countries which are currently letting market forces alone decide the pace of automation will keep an interested eye both on the effect of the project on South Korea’s automated manufacturing base, and corollary effects on its society and economy over the next five years.

Tags:

business Korea news politics Samsung
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