Category Archives: Industry

A Sewbot In Time

CHINA IS THE world’s largest exporter of garments, worth some $170 billion a year. So far, the industry has escaped the retaliatory tariffs Washington is to impose on more than 1,300 Chinese exports, no doubt much to the relief of members of US President Donald Trump’s family with clothing brands whose merchandise is made in China.

If any industry is emblematic of China’s rise as an economic power on the back of low-cost export manufacturing, it is probably textiles and apparel.

Low-cost labour has underpinned an army of seamstresses and tailors churning out garments by the million for retailers from the world’s leading brands to cheapest stores. It has also enabled the growth of an extensive ecosystem of spinners, weavers, knitters, dyers, processors and finishers, not to mention makers of fasteners, zippers and trimmings, all backed by cheap and efficient trade logistics.

As happened in Japan and South Korea before it, this has lifted millions of people out of poverty. But rising wages and a greying workforce are putting an end to that model.

Like the car and electronics industries before it, textile and apparel manufacturers in search of lower costs first offshored production, particularly in cheaper labour nations like Bangladesh and Myanmar. The industry’s outbound foreign direct investment hit a record $2.7 billion in 2016.

Now it is turning to automation not so much there but in its developed markets.

One striking example of this that caught this Bystander’s eye. Suzhou-based Tianyuan Garments Co., one of the biggest apparel makers in the country and which numbers Adidas, Armani and Reebok among its customers, is opening a $20 million factory of 300 sewing robots (‘sewbots’) in the United States.

It will make T-shirts for Adidas; 23 million a year once it is running at full pelt by the end of this year, a volume of relentless production that means its economies of scale will make it impossible for cheap labour anywhere to compete with it. Robots can sow faster, indefatigably and more consistently than humans: sweatshops without the human sweat.

The 400 human jobs that will be created at the new factory will support and maintain the robots and in logistics. The twist to the tale is that the sewbots are developed by a US company, SoftWear Automation, whose initial R&D was funded by the US Department of Defence. The US military needs domestic manufacturers of uniforms, clothing and basics such as towels and mats as it has a mandate from the US Congress to buy ‘Made in America’ yet three decades of offshoring has decimated the US textile and apparel industry and thus its potential suppliers.

SoftWear’s sowbots use computer vision to steer the fabric first through cutting and then along the production line through series of sewing needles. This is an automated step beyond the sort of manufacturing companies like Adidas are doing in their robot-aided production lines in Germany.

Tianyaun’s new factory is located in Little Rock, Arkansas, with the state providing $3.2 million in incentives and a 65% break on property taxes to attract it. Another Chinese company, Shandong Ruyi Technology Group Co., is investing $410 million in an automated yarn spinning factory in Forrest City less than 100 miles from Tianyaun’s T-shirt operation.

Shandong Ruyi has a growing portfolio of some 40 global fashion brands, including Bally, Gieves & Hawkes, Aquascutum, the Paris-based fashion group SMCP (Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot) and Italy’s Cerruti 1881. It is moving into an old Sanyo plant that closed in 2007, an unintended symbol of how the industrial world is turning — and one that raises some questions about what ‘America First’ really means in such circumstances.

Once tariffs, duties and shipping costs are factored in, the case for shortening supply chains by shifting production closer to consumers in developed markets becomes compelling. It makes the turnaround of new lines quicker, essential in the fickle and fast-moving world of fashion.

For Tianyuan (and Adidas) there is the additional benefit of its robots being able to sew “Made in the USA” labels into the T-shirts it will be making for its German client. Xu Yingxin, vice-president of the China National Textile and Apparel Council, says Arkansas is becoming another centre for China’s textile industry.

So far, sewbots are limited in their ability to replicate the dexterity of the human hand. They can manage something simple like a T-shirt, but even hemming is challenging, and it will be several years before they can produce more complex garments like a dress shirt.

The industry’s vision of on-demand custom-made clothing that can be delivered to a customer overnight is still far off, but no longer unimaginable. E-commerce retail giant Amazon recently received a patent for a manufacturing system that produces “on-demand” apparel.

For low-wage countries like Cambodia or Vietnam, hoping to follow China’s development path the prospect should be terrifying. The International Labor Organization estimates that more than 43 million people are employed in the textile industry in Asian developing countries. Those jobs will not just go elsewhere; they will just go. The ones that will replace them will require different skills.

With hefty government support, China’s textile and garment makers may be moving out of the labour intensive end of the industry and into higher value-added specialty textiles for medical, engineering, filtration and automotive applications and into highly automated mass production overseas at just the right time.

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Anbang Nationalisation Underlines China’s Financial Stability Priority

Logo of Anbang Insurance Group. Photo credit: Mighty Travels. Licenced under Creative Commons.

WU XIAOHUI, THE politically well-connected chairman of the giant insurance group Anbang (his wife is Deng Xiaoping’s grand-daughter), has been in detention by authorities since last June. Now he is to stand trial for economic crimes, code for fraud and embezzlement, and the company run by personnel from the China Insurance Regulatory Commission for a year or two, an extraordinary move. The state assuming control of a private-sector business, and particularly one of this size and prominence, is unusual.

Anbang has been on an aggressive international acquisitions drive, buying such foreign trophy investments as the Waldorf Astoria in New York and a string of other luxury US hotels. Chinese firms, with official encouragement, have ‘gone global’ in recent years, rapidly expanding their international mergers and acquisitions activity.

In 2016, China overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest overseas investor. Non-financial outward direct investment that year exceeded $170 billion, a 44% increase from the previous year, according to the Ministry of Commerce. However, such activity entails tremendous financial risk from the leverage taken on, a risk exacerbated by Chinese firms’ lack of experience with the integration and management challenges that M&A brings, especial in deals that cross national and cultural borders.

Anbang appears to fall squarely in this camp. On some estimates (its finances are notoriously opaque), it has encumbered itself with debt to the point that it is fast approaching technical bankruptcy despite having more than $300 billion of assets.

That also makes it ‘too big to fail’. State administration will provide the funding to keep its core life and non-life insurance business operationally solvent. The insurance regulator says the company’s current operations remain stable but that its solvency is seriously endangered by its ‘illegal operations’ unspecified but which presumably include its investments in prestige prime US real estate.

Last August, authorities announced a list of sectors hat should be off-limits for Chinese firms as the foreign investment spree into things like European football clubs and Hollywood entertainment businesses was exacerbating debt concerns.

More broadly, in the drive for financial stability and to forestall any systemic financial shocks, President Xi Jinping has been asserting greater control over state enterprises and reining in sprawling private conglomerates, notably the ‘big four’ — Angbang plus Dalian Wanda, Fosun International and HNA Group — that have expanded rapidly via debt-fuelled foreign acquisitions.

That quartet that accounted for 20% of Chinese foreign acquisitions in 2016. Also, there has always been a nagging suspicion that, given the quartet’s political connections, some of this M&A acted as a conduit for senior officials to get their money out of the country.

All have been ‘urged’ to sell assets and pay down their debt while state banks were told to rein in their lending to them. In January, the chairman of the Banking Regulatory Commission, Guo Shuqing, warned that ‘massive, illegal financial groups’ posed a grave threat to financial reforms and the stability of the banking system and that China would address the issue ‘ in line with the law’.

Taking Anbang into state control may be the prelude to a series of moves against the layer of private conglomerates below the ‘big four’, a group of some 25-30 companies said to be in the regulators’ sights. Despite or perhaps because of his connections, Wu’s treatment, in particular, is intended to show that no tycoon is immune from being ‘deterred’ from risky borrowing and investment overseas, or from being reminded that private M&A strategies should be integrated with national investment priorities.

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China’s Giant Fish Dragon Takes To The Air

China's first home-grown large amphibious aircraft, the AG600, is seen flying in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, December. 24, 2017. Photo credit: Xinhua/Liu Dawei.

IT WAS MORE than a year later than initially expected — and unexplained eight months after its ground tests — but state-owned AVIC’s giant seaplane, the AG600 (above), has finally made its maiden flight. Codenamed Kunlong or the Giant Fish Dragon (Kun was the monstrous fish form of the mythical Peng bird), China’s first indigenous large amphibious aircraft took off from Zhuhai in southern Guangdong Province today. After a one-hour flight over the South China Sea, it returned to flag-waving crowds and martial music.

It is not China’s first seaplane. The PLA-Navy has five 1980s-era SH-5 patrol seaplanes in service. But it is the largest, indeed the world’s largest, surpassing Japan’s Shinmaywa US-2.

The AG600 is capable of carrying 50 people and staying airborne for half a day. Its purported mission will be maritime rescue, fighting forest fires and marine monitoring.

However, planes that can operate on water have military value to a country whose national interests concern the disputed waters of the East and South China seas and the increasing projection of littoral power. Japan uses its four Shinmaywa US-2s and three other older seaplanes to patrol islands.

As we noted last year:

The turboprop AG600 could undertake patrol and supply roles for China’s expanding islands in the South China Sea (all that dredging creates ideal landing channels for seaplanes), and, alongside China’s blue-water amphibious assault vessels, be part of an amphibious assault force. With a range of 5,000 kilometres, they could project power far beyond the littoral.

That is the same range as the large military cargo plane, the Y-20, which made its maiden flight in 2013.

The third of China’s trinity of home-grown large aircraft is the C919 passenger aircraft, a potential rival to the Airbus 320 and Boeing’s new generation 737, which had its maiden flight in May and is now undergoing long-flight testing. The second prototype C919 made its maiden flight earlier this month.

 

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China’s Plans For Neighbourhood Nuclear Heating

CHINA NATIONAL NUCLEAR CORP. (CNNC) has been experimenting with a neighbourhood nuclear power plant the size of an Olympic swimming pool designed to provide heating for about 200,000 homes.

A 400-megawatt low-pressure ‘Yanlong’ small modular reactor (SMR) has been heating CNNC’s buildings for about three years, and the state-owned company has just run a 168-hour trial of district heating in Beijing.

The mini-reactors will cost an estimated $225 million to build (a fraction of the cost of a full-scale plant, typically upwards of $10 billion) and can be fabricated off-site and delivered by lorry, cutting constructing to three years.

How readily citizens will accept that a swimming-pool-sized nuclear power plant in the backyard is safe is one key question. Another is the economics. Neighborhood nuclear could be cheaper than gas, but pricing nuclear is notoriously difficult to forecast.

If the cost and safety issues can be resolved, SMRs become an attractive alternative to fossil fuels for cities on clean energy and environmental grounds and would help China meet its goal of increasing its domestic nuclear capacity to 200 gigawatts by 2030, up from 35 gigawatts at the end of March.

Small-scale reactors such as the one CNNC is testing fit into a wider research drive to develop and commercialise SMRs not just for cities but also islands, ships and other forms of transport.

CNNC is testing a small-scale reactor dubbed Linglong or Nimble Dragon in Hainan, and reports in October said a prototype floating nuclear power plant would be deployed before 2020 at drilling platforms in the Bohai Sea. An offshore nuclear power plant programme had been confirmed in January.  The South China Sea is the likely destination for some of them.

Such small-scale reactors are potentially commercial lifelines for the nuclear industry worldwide, which has struggled since the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor. Beijing suspended nuclear development in the wake of the disaster and only cautiously resumed it in October 2012.

China is not alone in seeing a large global market for small-scale reactors; so, too, does Russia and the United States, both of which are working on designs for them. Meanwhile, China intends for its nuclear power industry to go global, and has ambitions to sell 30 of its third-generation large nuclear power unit, the Hualong or China Dragon, by 2030 to countries involved with the Belt and Road Initiative.

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China’s Collectivisation of Capital

THERE IS A vacuum in the state’s control of the economy. The combination of powerful private companies arising in new areas of economic activity from which state was absent, such as within the tech industry, and the breaking up of the patronage networks within state-owned enterprises (SOEs) as a consequence of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has created it.

The Party abhors a vacuum and has stepped in to assert its control as the state’s wanes. Under Xi, the People’s Daily opined in June, the Party has sought to address the “weakening, watering down, hollowing out and marginalisation” of party leadership at state enterprises.

Two months ago a government statement made it clear that private-sector business should follow Party guidance, including ‘patriotism’, ‘observing discipline’ and ‘serving society’ within its definition of entrepreneurship.

The mechanism for exercising Party control is the Party branch within companies. These have long existed within SOE’s (they are present in 93% of the 147,000 SOEs big and small) and have become prevalent in the private sector. Qi Yu, deputy head of the Central Organisation Department, said in October that 68% of 2.73 million private businesses had Party branches as of the end of last year.

Party cells are also becoming more common in joint ventures with foreign firms, and are being pushed on foreign firms with wholly owned local operations as part of the ‘new era’. Qi said 70% of foreign-funded firms in China – or 750,000 – have set up Party branches and 106,000 foreign-invested companies, against 47,000 in 2011.

Samsung and Nokia are two foreign companies who have acknowledged publicly that they have set up Party branches in their local operations; The medical systems division of Japan’s Toshiba has had a branch since 2007. The US chemicals multinational DuPont had one when it set up in Shanghai in the 1990.

The influence of Party cells varies greatly between companies and industries. At their best, or at least as portrayed by authorities, they promote goodwill and communication between the company and the Party. They run companies’ internal labour unions and be a source of labour through the agencies that coordinate them.

Some are little more than a cost irritant (the company foots the bill for Party branches’ activities). In joint ventures, especially with SOEs, they can make operational decision making more opaque and cumbersome. At the other end of the spectrum, they can seek to determine strategic and operational investment and business decisions.

Some SOEs listed in Hong Kong have gone as far as changing their articles of association so as to give the party a leading role in management decisions. And there are reports circulating of joint ventures being pressed to rewrite their terms of agreement to give the Party a more formal say in operations and management, including a final say over investment decisions.

It is that direction of travel — expanding the party’s presence in areas where it has previously had a limited role, such as in private and foreign joint-venture companies and the boards of listed firms, that is exercising foreign multinationals operating in China.

In late July, executives from more than a dozen top European companies in China met quietly in Beijing under the aegis of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China to discuss their concerns about the Party’s growing role in the local operations firms like theirs. Last month, the Delegations of German Industry and Commerce in China, representing German chambers of commerce, also raised their concerns and said some German companies might consider withdrawing from the market if the Party’s influence on their local operations grew.

Part of their argument was that companies from multi-party democracies should not be bound to promote a particular party, especially one that claims a monopoly on political power. However, the concern is that once Party presence is written into governance, commercial management autonomy is lost for good. In addition, Party members are subject to the Party’s disciplinary procedures, which, of course, is beyond any internal policies a company may have.

A statement from the State Council Information Office earlier this year, saying that “company party organisations generally carry out activities that revolve around operations management, can help companies promptly understand relevant national guiding principles and policies, coordinate all parties’ interests, resolve internal disputes, introduce and develop talent, guide the corporate culture, and build harmonious labour relations” is less reassuring to foreign investors than the Office probably intended.

The other end of the telescope is that the Party should intervene to assert the collective interest of the whole over the that of the part, the whole, in this case, being the state capitalist class.

An old-school Marxist ideologue might describe the presence of Party units in companies, and the guidance and discipline they would provide, as a precursor to the collectivisation of capital, in which individual companies become units of a state corporate whole.

In these more pragmatic days, this Bystander sees it just as the Party extending an strengthening its presence and control over all sectors of society, even in areas where it has previously had a limited role, which might be much the same thing.

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Too Innovative To Be True

Traffic-straddling busTHE GIANT TRAFFIC-STRADDLING bus that caught this Bystander’s somewhat skeptical eye last year (see above) has gone the way of many an idea that was too innovative for its own good. Nowhere.

Technical and financial shortcomings seem to have done for it, according to press reports. Latest reports say the test track is being dismantled.

Last year, shortly after the (very) short test run of a prototype Transit Elevated Bus (TEB) in Qinhuangdao, the Beijing News reported that the main investment promotor for it was Huaying Kailai, an asset management company blacklisted in 2015 for conducting illegal finance activities. The Global Times said the firm, part of the Huaying Land Group, also ran a peer-to-peer financing scheme that promised high returns but risked running out of cash.

Claims of cooperation agreements between the bus’s maker, TEB Technology Development, and municipal governments appear to have been as spurious as purported orders from three countries in Latin America.

Update: Police have arrested 32 people in connection with the failure of the TEB, including the CEO of TEB and founder of Huaying Kailai Asset Management, Bai Zhiming, and 31 Huaying Kailai employees.

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China’s R&D Gets Ever Bigger Bucks

TARIFF CUTS ON imports of some 200 IT products ranging from touch screens to semiconductors took effect on Thursday. The goal is to eliminate them within seven years.

China is one of 50 countries that signed up to a World Trade Organisation Information Technology Agreement last year to promote trade liberalisation of technology goods. China imports an estimated $325 billion worth a year of the components covered by the agreement. Reducing the duty on them will cost an estimated $2.25 billion a year, rising to a potential $8 billion a year with complete elimination.

However, the benefits of cheaper imports for the IT sector are seeing as outweighing these costs. Beijing is undertaking a drive to promote the development of technology-based industries. To this end, it is also raising research and development spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2020 from 2015’s 2.1%, a change that eventually will fatten China’s R&D pot by $50 billion a year.

Intensification of investment into R&D facilities outside China parallels this. So far this year, Chinese companies have announced nine new overseas R&D centres for a total capital expenditure estimated at $224m, according to fDi Markets, a Financial Times division, with pharma and biotech investments particularly prominent. Only Germany and the United States have spent more.

That will support the transformation of the manufacturing economy from low-end exports to self-sustaining indigenous technological innovation, an essential prop for the rebalancing of the economy overall towards being consumption-led.

Winning domestic market share is the aim for now of Chinese firms’ R&D efforts.  The success some are having is creating an indigenous innovation culture built around rapid, incremental product development that can take advantage of the economies of scale of the domestic market.

However, Chinese firms are closer than ever to competing with developed-economy companies in R&D. Products they are now selling in Africa and Asia, as well as at home, are starting to show the results of that, a harbinger of what will eventually come to developed markets, too.

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