China wants to tap Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 — the term first used in Germany to describe the much deeper combination of information technology and manufacturing that’s now emerging in factories — can help China’s plastics industry upgrade, even if it’s not entirely clear what shape that upgrade will take.

As one step, the head of China’s plastics machinery association is calling for a plastics-related manufacturing innovation center.

The topic of industrial upgrades took center stage at a German industry-sponsored forum on Industry 4.0 at the Chinaplas show in Shanghai in late April.

Borch Zhu, the chairman of the China Plastics Machinery Industry Association, told the conference that Germany’s 4.0 advancements can help China meet its own goals of upgrading manufacturing as part of the government’s Made in China 2025 plan released last year.

A key part of the Made in China 2025 plan calls for much higher levels of locally made content in core components and materials, increasing to 40% locally made by 2020 and 70% by 2025.

Zhu talked about why he believes it’s important for the local machinery industry to be involved in the China 2025 effort, and said it is worthwhile for plastics companies to seek the attention of the government.

He called plastics machinery a “sunrise industry” that continues to boost its technology.

He said that last year, for the first time, China exported more plastics machinery than it imported. China has had the world’s largest plastics machinery sector since 2005, he said, and currently has annual sales of more than CNY 50bn (€6.7bn).

“We are still on the growth curve,” he said.

CPMIA data presented at the forum indicated that locally made plastics machinery is taking a much larger part of China’s market. Made-in-China plastics machinery accounted for about 80% of the Chinese market in 2015, up from 50% in 2008.

The data did not make it clear, however, how much of that increase came because of the sizable increase in foreign machinery investment in China’s plastics sector in the last decade, rather than from solely Chinese-owned companies.

Zhu noted that China still has weak links in bridging gaps with more advanced manufacturing economies, including in skilled labor. He called for setting up an innovation center for plastics, to bring in technology from other industries and help the local plastics sector.

An analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said that Made in China 2025 draws “direct inspiration” from Industry 4.0, but is much broader than the German plan. For example, the Chinese plan calls for creating 40 national innovation centers in manufacturing.

“The Chinese effort is far broader, as the efficiency and quality of Chinese producers are highly uneven, and multiple challenges need to be overcome in a short amount of time if China is to avoid being squeezed by both newly emerging low-cost producers and more effectively cooperate and compete with advanced industrialized economies,” CSIS said.

At the forum, which was sponsored by Germany’s VDMA plastics machinery trade association, there were presentations from German firms on how their equipment could benefit Chinese firms seeking to automate, and a lot of discussion about what 4.0 would mean for the Chinese industry.

One audience member, a Shanghai-based supplier quality engineer for Whirlpool Corp., said plastics firms in Whirlpool’s Chinese supply chain hear a lot of talk about 4.0. But they wonder what investments they will need to make and they’re asking a lot of questions, said Roger Dong, supplier quality lead engineer in Whirlpool’s International Purchasing Office in Shanghai.

In interviews at Chinaplas, executives offered mixed versions of how 4.0 and similar ideas are proceeding in China, given the country’s historically intense focus on low cost.

Some suggested that with more Chinese companies investing abroad, there’s more focus on ideas like Industry 4.0.

“You have global companies like Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, they are suddenly a global company with Johnson Controls,” said Gero Willmeroth, sales and service president at Engel Machinery Shanghai. “That means they definitely have to do something and develop this.”

Yanfeng last year became the world’s largest maker of automotive interiors when it took a 70% stake in its joint venture with Glendale, Wis.-based Johnson Controls.

Also, he said Chinese processors that want more transparency in their manufacturing, to be able to better demonstrate part quality to customers, are interested in 4.0.

But others noted potential limiting factors. An April study from the consulting firm IHS Inc. said manufacturing overcapacity in China could limit robot market growth, forcing continued reliance on labor, although it also noted that demand for robots will continue to grow as labor-intensive industries automate.

The study said robot suppliers headquartered outside of China accounted for 80 percent of the Chinese robot market in 2015.

Machinery maker KraussMaffei Group gets fewer broad questions in China about networked machines and 4.0-related topics than it does about specific controllers or narrower technology designed for specific improvements in shot weight or scrap, said Christian Blatt, China CEO for the company.