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NEWS | Robots Will Help Chinese Firms Cope With Rising Wages And The Trade War

Release time:2019-9-2 10:16:20 Read:6501 th

Few items of clothing convey seriousness quite like the white-collar shirt. It took the exuberance out of the Elizabethan ruff and put the starch into Victorian Britain. It defined a sense of upward mobility, whether for bank clerks, Japanese salarymen or anyone keen to push around paper and professional underlings.

But few white shirts are sold as earnestly as those at the pye stores in China. You half expect the shop assistants to whip out a slide rule rather than a tape measure. The name pye, the brand enthuses, “combines the Chinese character for flair with its homonym, the mathematical constant π.” Its white shirts are named, unfashionably, after mathematicians; Euclid and Newton for ones with a Western collar, Zu and Liu for Mao-like Mandarin ones.
但在中国,很少有人像「派」衬衫专卖店那般一本正经地销售白衬衫。看店员的架势,你还以为他们抽出的会是一把计算尺而不是一条卷尺。这个品牌热情洋溢地介绍说,「派」字取自中文里『气派』的派,又与数学常数 π 同音。」它的白衬衫以数学家的名字命名:西式领衬衫叫欧几里得领和牛顿领,中山装式的立领衬衫叫祖冲之领和刘徽领,听着都不怎么时尚。

Esquel, owner of pye and a big shirtmaker for Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger and other global brands, is not just serious about its shirts. It is also concerned with the upward mobility of its 56,000-odd employees, half of whom work in factories in China. Unusually for the textile and apparel industry, it is keen to raise their pay and productivity via mechanisation. As a private firm, it can do so with long-term thinking that borders on Confucianism. But it also has a hard-headed determination to adapt in the face of a tighter domestic labour market and a trade war with America. Other Chinese manufacturers are doing the same, meaning that these twin threats could, counter-intuitively, make them stronger.
大型衬衫生产商溢达集团是「派」衬衫的东家,它也为 Hugo Boss、Tommy Hilfiger 等跨国品牌做代工。溢达不仅在做衬衫这件事上很认真,对自己 5.6 万多名员工的发展也很上心,这些员工有一半在中国的工厂工作。溢达十分热衷于通过机械化来提高员工的薪酬和生产率,这在纺织和服装行业里很不寻常。作为一家非上市企业,它可以以一种近乎儒家思想的长远思维来追求这一目标。但它同时也以冷静务实的态度,决意适应一个更吃紧的本国劳动力市场和中美贸易战带来的挑战。其他中国制造商也在这样做,这意味着这种双重威胁反而可能让它们变得更强大。

Tech styles

The garment trade is not where you usually find stories of business success that are also inspiring, especially in cut-throat China. The supply chain is brutal. The work is repetitive; piece work makes it all the more soul-sapping. It is relatively hard to automate soft materials like textiles; making Esquel’s shirts involves up to 65 fiddly sub-processes, such as stitching sleeves and cuffs. As soon as labour costs rise, textile and garment factories tend to fly away, seeking cheaper fingers to work to the bone, be they in Bangladesh or Ethiopia. Esquel plans instead to keep lots of its work in China.
在服装行业通常找不到令人兴奋的商业成功故事,特别是在竞争激烈的中国。供应链十分残酷。工作是单调的重复,计件工作更是让人精神颓丧。纺织品等软材料相对较难实现自动化处理,溢达的衬衫生产有多达 65 个精细繁琐的工序,例如缝合袖子和袖口。一旦劳动力成本上升,纺织品和服装工厂就会去别处寻求更廉价的劳动力来拼命干活,不管是在孟加拉还是埃塞俄比亚。而溢达却计划继续把大部分生产留在中国。

Textiles is not the only Chinese manufacturing industry to face rising wages, high turnover of workers and an ageing population; electronics does too, for instance. In some cases, such difficulties are exacerbated by the trade war; Japanese firms have reportedly shifted production of devices for cars, such as radios, from China to Mexico where they can evade tariffs.

Yet even if American tariffs rise further, many Chinese companies are betting heavily on automation to remain competitive. In 2017 China’s installations of industrial robots rose by 59% to 138,000, more than in America and Europe combined. While downplaying its controversial “Made in China 2025” industrial policy, to soothe the fears of the Trump administration, the Chinese government is happy to throw money at existing manufacturing industries in order to help them tool up. That will help keep the robot revolution running.
然而,即便美国进一步提高关税,许多中国公司也在大力押注自动化以保持竞争力。2017 年,中国的工业机器人安装量增长 59%,达 13.8 万台,超过了美国和欧洲的总和。虽然中国政府在淡化颇有争议的「中国制造 2025」产业政策,以缓解特朗普政府的担忧,但它很乐意向现有制造业投资,以帮助它们提升装备水平。这将有助于继续推进机器人革命。

Walk through Esquel’s biggest factory in Foshan in the Pearl River Delta and it is clear that even here the robots are coming. The hundreds of workers sitting, heads down, in pink caps are a sight to behold. They are also outnumbered by machines. On some lines, robotic arms swish, trimming collar bottoms and pressing plackets. The devices do fiddly jobs like making sure that tiny pearl-coloured buttons for Banana Republic have the word Banana on the top. Israeli cameras, adapted from military devices, use artificial intelligence to scan for flaws in the fabric, automating one of the most mind-numbing of jobs.
溢达最大的工厂位于珠江三角洲的佛山,穿行其中时你会清楚地看到,即使在这里机器人也已开始大量部署。成百上千戴着粉色帽子的工人坐在工位上埋头工作,颇为壮观。但机器人的数量比工人更多。在一些生产线上,机械臂嗖嗖地修剪着领座、压平门襟。这些设备做了很多精细工作,像是确保香蕉共和国品牌服饰的珠光小纽扣上印有 Banana 这个词。改装自军用设备的以色列摄像头运用人工智能扫描布料中的瑕疵,自动化了最乏味的工作之一。

Some workers have been displaced but productivity has improved, keeping the firm’s profits stable despite a tripling since 2006 of its average monthly wage in China, to 4,500 yuan ($650). At first workers reacted to the machines rather as English Luddites eyed automated looms. But now they help design them. Esquel managers joke that they do so out of laziness—they want to make their jobs easier. Take “Sister Yan”, a matron in black dress and sensible shoes, who started on the factory floor aged 21. She worried about the shoddy quality of many of the hand-stitched garments, and helped the firm’s engineers to design mechanisms to do the job better. Now she is a senior manager, and with “Brother Ming”, the chief engineer, shares credit for several industrial patents. Tian Ye, an Esquel executive, quips that the increasingly tech-savvy seamstresses are no longer strictly blue-collar workers but nor are they yet white-collar ones either. Instead, he says, they are “checked or striped”.
一些工人已被机器人取代,但生产率也已提高。尽管自 2006 年以来公司中国工厂的月平均工资增长了两倍,达到 4500 元,但公司的利润仍保持稳定。起初,工人对机器人的反应和英国路德派对待自动织布机的态度如出一辙。但现在,他们开始帮着设计机器人。溢达的经理开玩笑说,工人这么做是为了能偷点懒,让自己的工作更轻松。穿着黑色连衣裙和低跟鞋的中年女士颜姐(音译)21 岁就进厂工作了。她担心许多手工缝制的服装质量不过关,就帮助公司的工程师设计了机械装置来更好地完成工作。现在她是一名高级经理,与总工程师明哥(音译)共同拥有几项产业专利。溢达的高管田野打趣说,女工们越来越懂技术,已不再是严格意义上的蓝领工人,但也还算不上白领,或者可以说是「格子或条纹领」工人。

Automation is also expected to help Esquel in the trade stand-off with America. Despite the frictions, Marjorie Yang, Esquel’s chairman, is in effect doubling down on China. She touts a 2bn yuan investment in a new factory in Guilin, a picturesque region, including a yarn-spinning division so high-tech that visitors are not allowed to walk the floors. So far Esquel’s products have been spared American tariffs. American clients are nervous, so if need be the firm could shift some production to its factories outside China, such as in Mauritius, while moving other lines back home.
自动化也有望在中美贸易对峙中帮助溢达。尽管两国存在摩擦,但溢达的董事长杨敏德实际上却在把对中国的投资翻倍。她大力宣传自己投资 20 亿元人民币在风景如画的桂林新建的一家工厂,其中包括一间高科技纺纱车间,访客不得入内。到目前为止,溢达的产品还没被美国加征关税。但美国客户很紧张,因此如果有需要的话,公司可能会将一些生产转移到它在中国以外的工厂,例如毛里求斯,同时将其他生产线转回国内。

Two factors are likely to encourage manufacturers in China to remain loyal to their home market. The first is its sheer size. Willy Shih of the Harvard Business School says this enables them to practice and refine their production processes on a scale that allows them to keep cutting costs. The other is the skill of the robots themselves. He says there is so much “embedded knowledge” in today’s machine tools that China can quickly start creating products that may have taken a generation to develop previously, such as cars with top-of-the-range automatic transmissions.
有两个因素很可能会促使中国制造商继续忠于本国市场。首先是本国市场的庞大规模。哈佛商学院的史兆威(Willy Shih)表示,庞大的市场规模能让制造商规模化地实践和完善生产流程,从而持续降低成本。另一个因素是机器人本身的能力。史兆威说,今天的机器有很多的「嵌入式知识」,中国可以迅速着手创造过去可能需要一代人的时间才能开发出来的新产品,例如具有顶级自动变速器的汽车。

It is worth remembering this amid the fears about a trade-war-related slowdown in China’s factory activity. If Esquel is any guide, Chinese firms may use the opportunity to become even more efficient, rather than wilting in the face of adversity. In the long run, that would make China’s economy as a whole more resilient.

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