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Chinese Bid for Kuka Shows How Serious It Is About Robots

A Chinese company’s attempt to buy the German robotics giant is the latest sign of the country’s ambitions to lead a revolution in advanced manufacturing.

A Chinese company called Midea Group that makes washing machines, air conditioners, and other household appliances is offering a little over $5 billion to acquire one of the world’s biggest industrial robot companies, Germany’s Kuka. It would be a big deal, but it should also come as no surprise.

Automation is becoming incredibly important to Chinese manufacturers, since they can no longer rely on a huge, low-paid migrant workforce to produce their products. Many manufacturers are already investing heavily in automation and robots, and the government is pouring billions into efforts to spur further efforts to replace human workers with robots.

According to data collected by the International Federation of Robotics, China has seen explosive growth in demand for robots in recent years, and now stands as the world’s number one importer. There is also plenty of room for China’s robot army to grow. The IFR reckons that China has 36 robots per 10,000 human workers, compared with 164 per 10,000 in the United States or 478 in South Korea.

Currently, though, most of China’s robots come from other countries. To really lead this technological revolution, both Chinese manufacturers and the government would like to see the country produce more of its own robot technology. Taking a position of leadership in industrial robotics could also help China in its ongoing push to see its economy generally become more advanced and technology-focused.

Another reason Midea Group might be interested in acquiring deep robotics expertise may be the perceived potential for growth in home service robots. Perhaps the company thinks that someday its appliances may not only be made by robots, they may actually be robots, too.

(Read more: Wall Street Journal, “China Is Building a Model Army of Robot Workers," International Federation of Robotics, Financial Times)

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