A cache of robots is humming away in an almost synchronous motion. While the robots may appear to be dancing, the actual task they are performing could well be  considered mundane: they are manufacturing and assembling a spilt air-conditioning device. However, they are carrying out their work on their own, without any human intervention.

Construction Week checked out these industrial robots at Midea’s residential air-conditioner facility in the Nansha district of Guangzhou, China. The visit to the factory was organised by the company in collaboration with its UAE-headquartered distributor, Taqeef.

The fully automated, 118,000m2 Nansha facility has a monthly average production capacity of 500,000 sets. In a bid to completely automate its operations, Midea has, over the years, cut down on the number of people that work in the manufacturing facility.

So why is a company in China – one of the world’s largest knowledge economies – cutting its staff numbers? For one, it is because younger populations do not enjoy working in a factory, Peck Zhao, senior marketing manager for overseas sales at Midea Commercial Air Conditioner (CAC), says during Construction Week’s tour of the site.

He explains: “Automation is a long-term strategy for us, and we think the future will be fully automated. Firstly, the labour costs can be reduced by automating operations. Also, young people do not like working in a factory, so eventually you have to invest in automation. 

“That is not just because of the low [production] cost, but largely due to people’s preference. More people choose jobs in an office environment rather than factories. So we are investing now for our future.” 

The Chinese government is also playing a major role in the push for innovation, and hopes to increase the country’s research and development (R&D) spend to account for 2.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP) by 2020. Credit Suisse estimates that this hike would represent an increase of 73% in China’s R&D spend compared to 2015.

The Chinese government also encourages multinationals to set up R&D centres in the country, through which local graduates can learn the skills required to commercialise innovation. 

Midea has an innovation centre in the town of Shunde in the Guangdong Province, where graduates are recruited and trained. Zhao says the company has already taken steps to align its strategy with a more automated future, adding that Midea invests around 4% of its total revenue in R&D.

“In the past five years, $3.8bn has been invested in the R&D department, [which is] always our richest. We think this will bring a big change in the industry, as we cannot predict what might happen as we keep innovating. For instance, our Nansha factory is fully automated. Staff here do not need to touch anything; they only need to monitor operations,” Zhao says.