Even a decade ago, car manufacturing in China was still a fairly low-tech, labor-intensive endeavor. Thousands of workers in a factory, earning little more than $1 an hour, performed highly repetitive tasks, while just a handful of industrial robots dotted factory floors.
At Ford's newest car assembly plant in Hangzhou in east-central China, at least 650 robots, resembling huge, white-necked vultures, bob and weave to assemble the steel structures of utility vehicles and midsize sedans. Workers in blue uniforms and helmets still do some of the welding, but much of the process has been automated.
The state-of-the-art factory exemplifies the vast transformation that has taken place across manufacturing in China. General Motors opened a similarly ultra-modern Cadillac factory in the eastern suburbs of Shanghai, as well as one in Wuhan. Other automakers are also pouring billions of dollars into China, now the world's largest auto market.
Robots are critical to China's economic ambitions, as Chinese companies look to move up the manufacturing chain. The Ford assembly plant is across the street from a robot-producing factory owned by Kuka, the big German manufacturer of industrial robots that a Chinese company bought last summer.
For carmakers, the reliance on robots is driven partly by cost. Blue-collar wages have soared because multinational companies have moved much of their production to China even as its labor force is rapidly changing. The combination of the one-child policy, which cut the birth rate through the 1980s and '90s, and an eightfold increase in college enrollments has cut by more than half the number of people entering the work force each year who have less than a high school degree and may be willing to consider factory work.
Blue-collar wages are now $4 to $6 an hour in large, prosperous cities, though still far lower than in the United States.
Automation is also a competitive necessity. As carmakers jockey for customers' attention, they have no choice but to deploy the latest technologies, even in research and development. The challenge is how to keep a competitive edge, while trying to prevent intellectual property from being copied quickly by Chinese rivals.
"We're basically building an R&D center here in China, and test track, that is on par with other parts of Ford," in North America, Europe and Australia, said Mark Fields, the chief executive of Ford Motor. At the same time, he said, the company would protect its intellectual property.
Robots perform tasks like welding in exactly the same way every time, improving quality control. But they require a lot of fine-tuning along the way.
The painting process is also mostly automated. Elaborate spraying robots, their joints covered in many layers of plastic so that they do not become clogged with paint mist, snake back and forth across each car body. Workers still apply protective sealant to the vehicles' interiors and underbodies, as Ford has been leery of depending entirely on robots for this step until it is sure they work well. More robots are scheduled to be installed in August, replacing manual labor for the protective sealant step as well.
Automation doesn't elicit the same fear of job losses in China as in the United States. With car demand in China growing quickly, ever more factories and workers are needed to produce more cars. The Ford factory here in Hangzhou may have 650 robots, but it also has 2,800 workers. Other automakers continue to hunt for skilled workers to fill vacancies in their factories.
"Robots aren't the threat," said Paul Buetow, the director of China manufacturing at General Motors. "The threat is not being able to run your business with products that people want to buy."