The Future of “Made in China”: Robots are taking over China’s Factory Floors

The video echoes one recent Wall Street Journal article about Levi Strauss using automation technologies to revamp their apparel production in China:

“In an apparel factory in Zhongshan, a gritty city of three million stuffed with industrial parks across the Pearl River from Hong Kong, lasers are replacing dozens of workers who scrub Levi’s blue jeans with sandpaper to give them the worn look that American consumers find stylish. Automated sewing machines have cut the number of seamstresses needed to stitch arc designs into back pockets. Digital printers make intricate patterns on jeans that workers used to do with a mesh screen.”

One important factor that gives a push to adopting robots in China’s factory floor is the end of very cheap labor in China. China’s wage level has been rising in double-digit percentages for the past decades. And as a consequence of its “one-child policy”, by 2050, the working-age population in China could decline by 212 million according to estimation from the United Nations.

But Levi executives say they have largely abandoned a strategy of relocating production to one impoverished country after another, known as “chasing the needle,” in favor of other forms of cost-cutting.” “Labor is getting more expensive and technology is getting cheaper,” says Andrew Lo, chief executive of Crystal Group, one of Levi’s major suppliers in China.

“Levi is adapting its laser technology so it can etch different patterns to make one type of denim look like another, reducing costs by buying less fabric. For a new line of women’s wear, Levi said it needed only 12 fabrics, rather than 18. In the past three years, Levi said, it cut the number of its suppliers by 40% and the number of fabrics by 50%.”

“The changes also give Levi greater flexibility, said Ms. O’Neill, the 44-year-old executive who helps oversee the company’s supply chain. If a pair of jeans using a particular fabric is selling well, she says, Levi can use lasers to produce more of the desired look, and pare back designs that are losers. “The idea is to delay decision-making for as long as possible,” said Ms. O’Neill.”

And this is only the beginning! Some technologists think that inventions such as 3-D printing—essentially printers that replicate solid objects like copiers reproduce printed pages—will have a big impact by 2050. In such a world, printers could spew out clothing, food, electronics and other goods ordered online from a nearly limitless selection, with far fewer workers involved in production.

“In 2050, you could potentially have a 3-D printer at home that could produce all the fabrics you want,” said Roger Lee, the chief executive of Hong Kong’s TAL Group, which makes 1 of every 6 dress shirts sold in the U.S. for brands from Banana Republic to Brooks Brothers. “That would make us obsolete.”

Ironically but not surprisingly, automation also keeps wages down. Levi said it expects China production to rise only “modestly” next year; new orders are up for grabs. Apparel InternationaI’s president, Oscar Gonzalez, says the company now boasts an advantage over China—a large pool of apparel workers who were laid off in past downsizings. Excess labor has helped him keep wage increases to 2% or 3% a year he says. “Every Monday when we recruit,” he adds, “there are long lines of applicants.”

Welcome for any comments and discussion questions.


Author: Sheng Lu

Professor @ University of Delaware

29 thoughts on “The Future of “Made in China”: Robots are taking over China’s Factory Floors”

  1. I believe this new technology could have great potential to improve the Textile and Apparel industry in the future. However, it is very concerning to me that it will have a very large impact of the unemployment numbers. It is still important to ensure that there are enough jobs and that unemployment does not get too high. I am interested in whether or not organizations will allow for such a change in the industry. Also, I would be interested in seeing a comparison of how much the machinery costs to buy and use and how much the company would be paying for employees if they did not have this new machinery. Would it be more beneficial in terms of money to use these robots?

  2. I agree with rufoe in the above comment. I don’t really like this new technology. It has great advantages for the companies that use them, but not so much for the workers. I see that Levi needed only 12 fabrics, not 18, which reduced costs for the company. But automation keeps wages down, which is unfortunate for the workers who depend on those wages. So unless automated technologies need to be used in a certain situation – such creating designs in a chemical process that would otherwise be too dangerous for a human – I don’t think this new technology is very good for the apparel industry.

  3. I agree that the increase in robotics can potentially improve the textile and apparel industry greatly. The increase in using robots saves money, eliminates problems with staff, and cuts people out of the equation entirely. While it might be concerning that these people are losing their jobs, the video states that they are relocating workers to a service sector of the industry. Although a great amount of workers are to be laid off due to these machines, other companies have a great deal of people looking for work which has helped keep wage increases to 2% to 3% a year.

    The rise of technology does have the potential to defeat the textile and apparel industry, however. As the article states, we could all eventually have 3D printers by the year 2050 and create our own textiles, which would make our favorite clothing brands obsolete. Although technology does have this terrifying power, it is inevitable to stop it and we must learn to work with its disadvantages to reap the benefits of its advantages.

  4. Honestly, I think that this technology and the robot is a really cool idea. It has the potential to speed up production times. Along with that, it is causing a decrease in employment need for manufacturing teams. Having these robots offer great growth opportunities in the textile and apparel industry. Technology is continuing to grow, like you mentioned above with the possibility of 3-D printing in the future. This is all a great idea in theory, but the possibilities of unemployment that comes along with technological growth is scary and unknown. Just like they mentioned in the video a job that used to need 40 people on the manufacturing line now only needs 10 people and the robot. What does that mean for the other 30 people who are not needed anymore? Now think about that happening to all of the factories in the far future. That is a lot of jobs that are no longer needed for people to do.

    I agree with the comment above that the growth of technology is going to happen, so we have to embrace it and learn to work with it.

    1. very true! it is a heated debate whether robots will free people or replace people. personally I think it is both. low-skilled jobs are disappearing, sooner or later, whereas there will be more job openings for skilled labor. Overall, it is a reminder to our field–because somehow we take it for granted that apparel manufacturing is labor intensive. But if one day, robots can make apparel for us, can we stay relevant?

  5. The future of the apparel and textile industry is so unknown; automation technologies are surely going to take precedent in years to come. Surely these technologies will allow companies to have a much faster production process; by having things automated they are able to mass produce in what will most likely be an even quicker fashion. It seems that the largest negative effect of these machines is the risk in the loss of jobs. However, with benefits such as lower wage costs for the companies and the ability to produce at a more rapid pace, it would make sense that companies would elect to go down this route and implement these technologies.

  6. We have already started to see a big transition in the U.S. from standard labor to automation and technology, so it is interesting to see how the process is now beginning in other countries as well. I see it is a good indication of the wealth and development of a nation because only countries with strong economies can afford to invest in these technologies. It also makes me think back to the various stages in the T&A cycle, as the use of robots seems like China could fall into the full maturity stage of T&A manufacturing.

  7. There are many pros and cons to this new technology. For businesses, this is an amazing advancement. They no longer have to pay for labor and have lower prices for materials because the high technology can create different looks without different fabrics. But on the other hand, millions of jobs can potentially be lost. This can be both good and bad. This reduces the chances of sweatshops being formed due to cheap labor wages, but also puts people out of a job. It would be ideal if somehow new positions could be formed for these people who are losing their jobs so humans aren’t completely replaced by technology, however I think it may be inevitable.

  8. I think that the use of robots could both be beneficial and harmful for china. On one side of things, using technology to produce goods would save suppliers and companies a lot of money on manufacturing costs, or having to pay labor wages. It would also keep other citizens from having to work in dangerous conditions of a factory since machines would be doing the work. On the other hand, using technology would replace people who are currently producing these goods. Which means that unemployment in China will go way up, and people might not be able to care for their families. As long as China helps these people find new jobs, like they said they were going to with the growing service sector, I think that this change could be a good thing.

  9. It’s unbelievable that just by having a 3-D printer in homes by 2050, can completely eliminate a huge manufacturing company such as TAL group that is so prevalent in the industry today and produces almost all of the dress shirts sold in our country. It’s scary thinking about how the unemployment rate can fall in the coming years. Robots and machinery are definitely a benefit to most companies and factories, and I believe it shows that the country is wealthy enough to have these machines, but countries need to be careful to not adopt this technology too much that it takes over the company as a whole and eliminates almost all jobs.

  10. I think that the rise in robot technology to do manual labor restricts the opportunity for people to get jobs in manufacturing buildings. I definitely think that technology advancements are good for society and help us move in the right direction, but I do not like how many jobs it takes from skilled workers who need an income to support themselves and their families. The video stated in the beginning that the robot can operate in the same amount of time that 10 workers can operate, thus it is apparent that the managers of these factories want to have these robots because it will be more cost effective for them as business managers. On the other hand though, the video also stated that the interest in low level work has significantly decreases among people therefore they would not want these jobs. I found this very interesting because if someone is really looking for work, yet they do not want to work for a low wage job, then they will have no income. I don’t think people should be picky if they really need to support their families, if they have more skills than working in a factory, they should start there until they can find something more suited for them, so they can at least make some money in the meantime.

  11. One of the most interesting points I read was the fact that we could potentially have 3-D printers in our homes by 2050. Although, I agree that this would be detrimental to the manufacturing industry and create high unemployment it will also be a new and interesting outlet for design. This could open the door up for so many creative ideas that have yet to be discovered. I recently read another article on college students 3D printing their own grass. Even thought there could be major impacts on jobs because of 3D printing there could be positive impacts in other aspects of the world like environmental sustainability and art.

  12. I believe that while the textile and apparel industry is continuously changing and evolving, this new technology has the ability to create a permanent, and long-lasting impact. While it may improve the industry in the future, I find it concerning in regards to the results that it will have on the economy and the workers within the industry- similarly, this replacement of workers has the ability to lead to social issues such as unemployment. In addition, I believe that although robotics and technology may be more efficient and may be “worth it” as a company investment when considering long-term work conditions, technology has the ability to fail. This fact alone is something that needs to be strongly considered when trying to rationalize this dramatic shift in the future of the textile and apparel industry.

  13. While these kind of advances in technology are fantastic feats that could eliminate the use of a physical labor force allowing them to peruse other careers I think to much too fast with backfire. The reason that technology is replacing a physical work force is because it can accomplish the task more efficiently but more importantly for a lower cost. Yet if these machines rapidly replace workers, you will be left with millions of people scrambling for any kind of wage. Desperate workers may tempt some major factories to take advantage of them rather than convert their factory floors to tech paradise. Factories or the the chinese government could offer training classes for a new set of skills so the dislocated workers can peruse careers in other fields.

  14. I think the rise in automation in China’s factories shows how quickly they are developing as a country. I think it will be interesting to see if China follows the typical pattern of transitioning from a developing country with low labor costs and high numbers of manufacturing to a country that focuses more on the creative aspects of the industry while only maintaining manufacturing that requires more technology. It is also interesting to see that increased technology could potentially drive the overall costs down (though driving the individual’s labor costs up). If automation can drive the costs down enough maybe companies won’t continue to chase countries with the lowest labor rates that can not support safe working environments. I think everyone has made good points about factory workers losing jobs. It will definitely be interesting to see how China deals with this factor.

  15. An important question to consider is are the roles necessary to maintain the T&A manufacturing industry going to be as valuable in years to come? Technology is emerging in a number of ways including these robot manufacturers, automatic sewing machines, and 3D printing. An advantage that China has in the T&A industry is that since there is a large labor force, they have an abundance of people able to get manufacturing done much quickly than other countries. However, the more people that must be hired, the more money China is losing. By implementing technology to replace the roles of people, China could create the same level of fast and efficient productivity while cutting out a drastic amount of the labor costs. This imposes the question of what the skilled laborers are going to do to stay afloat. As the country advances technologically, a threat to the skill of its people is at hand.

  16. I believe the use of robots in factories can have both positive and negative effects on the global textile and apparel sector. It will have a negative effect on China because many Chinese citizens will lose their jobs and be unemployed. This will effect China’s economy as a whole and therefore have a negative impact on their textile and apparel sector. However, it will benefit American consumers because prices of apparel will be lower due to the fact that clothing will cost less to produce in China. Additionally, apparel will be manufactured more quickly and efficiently and more apparel will be available here in the US.

  17. From what i see there are many pros and cons to this technology. The involvement of robots in factories is undefyably helpful in cutting costs and increasing turnover rates, which in the industry is very important. The loss of so many jobs is not only devastating to ones personal life but also the lack of human connection in this process I think can change the industry in a big way. If clothing becomes solely made by robots (and i foresee no need for humans in this process in the near future, they will cut, sew, package, and send these products eventually) apparel will lose a part of its quality and meaning. Clothing is something that started out as hand made products by your mother or grandmother and pretty soon it will have no contact with a human until it is worn. I think the obsolescence of people in the process will take away something from apparel. Hopefully manufactures can figure a way to optimize efficiency while maintaing a human connection with these products.

    1. good comment. No matter how, personally I feel the day is coming soon that apparel manufacturing can be largely undertaken by machines–just like textile manufacturing today. When it happens, the impact will be huge. Many “skills” will become obsolete and many people could lose job, but many new jobs will emerge as well, although they could require totally different skill set. we need to be vigilant

  18. I do think that robotics can and will improve the textile and apparel industry. Introducing robots will save not only money, but also time. The textile and apparel industry won’t have to pay people per hour and won’t have to deal with problems people bring to the table.

    Although this would result in extreme job loss, it makes more sense for a company to have a more precise, constantly working device than employing an actual person. Those who have been laid off, are being relocated to a service sector.

    Whether we like it or not, technology will continue to grow. By 2050, it’s possible we may have 3D printers! Growing technology means people will be used less and less and job loses will continue to be a problem. BUT an increase of technology means better and fast textile, which as a consumer, we all look forward to.

  19. I find the usage of these robot machines very interesting. I believe it will definitely improve production and make it more efficient. Although it will bring many benefits to the textile and apparel industry, I was very surprised to see how technology is so much cheaper than labor. I assumed that technology costs would be higher but because of how efficient and quick the machines can produce products, that the benefits would outweigh the costs. Although these robots will help grow the textile and apparel industry, its a shame to see how many jobs will continually be lost due to these robots who don’t need these wages in order to survive. Workers in the textile and apparel industry work very hard every day and deserve to receive these higher wages. China continues to struggle with such a high population and by preventing workers from being able to make a salary due to this over power of robots, in the end this may hurt them more than it will benefit the industry.

  20. I found this article to be very eye opening especially since all semester we have been learning about illegal and unfair treatment of factory workers in other countries and now they are being replaced with machines. From a business standpoint, I see why this decision was made especially since the article explicitly says that technology is getting cheaper. Levi is also adopting laser technology that can etch patterns which saves the company money on buying excess fabrics. As stated later in the article, the machines and laser technology Levi is using is only the start of the technology revolution in the T&A industry. I find this change to be very interesting and wonder what other opportunities it may bring. If all or most companies switch from human labor to technology I wonder what is the impact that will have on different countries? Job wise and business wise, having to do with manufacturers and keeping, losing or gaining clients, what will happen? Another thing I thought about was if technology is cheap, and everyone is going to be doing it, why not the US? This could possibly cause a growth in US manufacturer’s business. If we are all using machines that are less expensive than human labor why not do it in the US? And if so, what impact will this have on the economy and will designers have their clothes manufactured in the US?

  21. While it is incredibly important to always update and advance our world through new technology, it’s also important to see the impact it has on our workforce. Just in the past 30 years, we have seen tremendous growth that has resulted in now obsolete jobs that citizens used to rely on so much. While I can appreciate this new technology and the ease it’ll create for production, I worry for the workers that will start to lose their jobs and house income that they need. I hope that one day we can find a balance so that our ever growing technology does not completely take over our workforce and that robots don’t ever fully take over humans.

  22. If there is one thing that I believe is evident in today’s culture is that technology is apparent in all aspects of our lives. With that being said, I believe that with the current trends in globalization as well as this influx of technology we are going to begin entering a point in history where technology not only changes our day to day lives, but has major impacts on proven trends and begins shaping industries on its own. This opinion is based on many of the different statements brought up in the article. To begin, the comment by Levi executives that ultimately recognizes that labor prices are increase and that “chasing the needle” is something that they will no longer do was extremely interesting to me. With what we have learned in FASH455 about the “Flying Geese Model” as well as long standing trends of basic economics I am astonished at the fact that companies are now saying that they “race to the bottom” is no longer lucrative. I am extremely interest to know if a majority of companies share this sentiment, or if it is simply a progressive thought had by a progressive company.
    In addition, with this shift to something so technological, that no longer solely depends on high amounts of unskilled labor I am anxious to see what changes in the progression of production will occur. Will this mean that highly developed countries such will become manufacturing empires once ago? How will this alter the aforementioned “Flying Geese Model” seen in Asia if the progression of countries suddenly changes? And lastly, what would the textile and apparel industry look like in 2050 if in home, personal 3D printer did exist? Will there be a T&A industry worth speaking of even more?
    Overall, I think this proves that this industry is in a very exciting and pivotal period, in which many changes will occur!

  23. I think it is very interesting how technology is impacting the T&A industry and our global economy today. I did not realize how equipped and advanced technology has become in order to replace the workplace and the position of textile and apparel workers. I understand it is faster, more convenient, and cheaper for companies to use technology in the production work place but it is replacing the jobs of workers who rely on their positions for a source of income. Before fash455, I did not really understand the T&A industry, but I have learned that many people including workers rely on it for a source of income, so it would not be fair to them to lose their jobs to machines because of new advances. I feel that people can learn and work just as fast and efficient as machinery in order to complete their companies accomplishments. Although technology is continuing to grow, I believe that people should learn and possess the positions that technology is trying to replace them in.

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