Even as talk about robots taking over low-(and not so low) skilled jobs has been all the rage in recent months, few Americans have been faced with the imminent threat of being displaced by Johnny 5. Not so in China, where a viral clip released by the local TV broadcaster shows an army of little orange robots sorting out packages in a warehouse in eastern China, the latest example of how machines are increasingly taking over menial factory work in the world's most populous nation.
The People’s Daily shared the behind-the-scenes footage of the self-charging robot army in a sorting centre of Chinese delivery powerhouse Shentong (STO) Express. The video, also released by the SCMP, shows hundreds of round Hikvision robots, each roughly the size of a seat cushion, swivelling across the floor of the large warehouse in Hangzhou. A worker is seen feeding each robot with a package before the machines carry the parcels away to different areas around the sorting centre, then flipping their lids to deposit them into chutes beneath the floor.
The robots identified the destination of each package by scanning a code on the parcel, thus minimising sorting mistakes, according to the video.
The army of robots can sort up to 200,000 packages per day and are self-charging, so they can work 24/7, although they are presently used only for about six or seven hours each time from 6pm according to a STO Express spokesman.
An STO Express spokesman told the South China Morning Post on Monday that the robots had helped the company save half the costs it typically required to use human workers. They also improved efficiency by around 30% and maximised sorting accuracy, he said.
“We use these robots in two of our centres in Hangzhou right now,” the spokesman said. “We want to start using these across the country, especially in our bigger centres.”
Manufacturers across China have been increasingly replacing human workers with machines, for one simple reason: Chinese wage growth is soaring with average wages in China's manufacturing sector rising above those in countries such as Brazil and Mexico.
Meanwhile, the output of industrial robots in the country grew 30.4% last year. In the country’s latest five-year plan, the central government set a target aiming for annual production of these robots to reach 100,000 by 2020.
Elsewhere, Apple’s supplier Foxconn last year replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots. The Taiwanese smartphone maker has several factories across China, with the bulk of the hundreds of thousands of employees set to be rep[laced by robots.