Automation in China’s die-forging industry began in the 1970s. It aimed to reduce labor intensity, enhance productivity and improve the quality of forgings. Instead of effectively reducing labor cost, however, automated manufacturing seriously affected productivity and profit due to its unstable performance. The huge investment didn’t bring obvious benefits. That was why automation was not popular before 2000.
Chinese die forging steadily grew through the 1990s. During that decade, automobile production increased to 2 million from 1 million. From 2000 to 2009, production took a great leap forward to 13.7 million.
The forging industry is less attractive to workers who were born in 1980s and 1990s. Companies in east China must pay each worker $8,000-15,000 per year (including salary, tax, insurance etc.) on average. Even so, they could not keep the young workers long enough.
Due to increasing salaries and strict quality demands, die-forging companies must turn to automation. According to incomplete statistics, about 30-40% of die forgings are produced on automatic/semiautomatic lines or single integrated automatic presses. It is estimated that fully automatic lines occupy less than 3% of all the forging lines in China, but the rate is increasing. The current problem is that many forging orders are of multiple varieties and small batches, which means it is more economical and reliable to continue to use human power than automation.
Meanwhile, forging automation is more and more reliable thanks to mobile information technology (IT) and big-data technology. In addition, Chinese government and industry organizations are encouraging the application of automation and intelligent manufacturing.
In 2015, the Chinese forging industry is facing its worst crisis with excess capacity and over competition, and about 50% of companies are under deficit. Automation in die forging is still in the initial stage in China, and many forging companies are considering increasing their competitiveness with this new method.
In fact, automation and intelligent manufacturing are the highlight of ChinaForge Fair in Shanghai Sept. 16-19, and about 20 companies will showcase and make presentations.
I have the following opinions on automation and intelligent manufacturing:
- For the moment, a lot of forging companies are evaluating the cost and benefit of automation. It is more complex and expensive than many forging owners expected because the order, product structure, die, press, etc. have to be modified to implement automation. Even so, I do believe that real investment will boom after the Chinese economy rebounds.
- For some top companies, automation is not nearly enough to enter the international market. Intelligent manufacturing is a higher-level production method. It is a complete turnkey solution, and intelligence is fully applied in each link of the whole process chain. Leading companies are currently preparing intelligent manufacturing.
- To realize intelligent manufacturing in die forging, it is necessary to collect, analyze and use vast production and technology data. German and Japanese companies are doing this well. The Confederation of Chinese Metalforming Industry (CCMI) is cooperating with some domestic private companies to use this technology.
- Modern management technology and methods, such as mobile IT and modern management software, must be involved in intelligent die-forging production.
- The key point is high-quality labor, especially workers born after 1980 with higher education. Environment and facilities must adapt to workers’ safety demands, behavior habits and culture ideology.
CCMI is one of the active participants and promoters of this great process. The yearly MetalForm China exhibition and various activities, monthly seminars and conferences are perfect ways to promote new technology and push the progress of intelligent production forward.