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Everyone has his or her own reason to follow the news from the China International Import Expo (CIIE).
My interest in the event is less as a reporter than as a self-styled geek looking to explore the latest gadgets and gizmos from around the world.
While many will predictably be drawn to what are now commonplace items like food, cosmetics and jewelry, I, for one, am hooked on smart manufacturing.
Overseas companies with plans to conquer the Chinese market appear to have become aware of how committed the Chinese government is to developing smart manufacturing and are merrily vying with each other for the biggest slice of pie they can get their teeth into.
Media reports have shown that some of the world’s most powerful companies have sent their best products to the expo, and it is not just smartphones or beautifully compact high-tech.
One German firm shipped a 200-ton, 2.8-million-euro (US$2.5 million) milling machine to the expo in October. The machine is a phenomenon. It’s not just its sheer size but an astonishing ability to churn out high-accuracy micron-perfect parts for the automobile and aerospace industries that has attracted attention.
One thing we know for sure is that robotics are big and getting bigger. One of the world’s big four manufacturers of industrial robots, FANUC will be holding nothing back. Qian Hui, general manager of the Japanese company’s Shanghai branch, has made it clear the company will be showing off the very latest developments, some for the very first time. China’s domestic consumption and imports of robotics (and almost every other product on show at the expo) are likely to expand exponentially in the years ahead and FANUC has every intention of riding the crest of that wave.
It was The Washington Post that earlier this year predicted that retail sales in China will reach US$5.8 trillion this year, equaling or surpassing the United States’. Whether companies are selling directly to consumers or operating on a B2B (business-to-business) basis, the market is awash with opportunities.
Exhibitors can take some confidence from the words of Premier Li Keqiang. Meeting a business delegation in March, Li invited overseas firms to join in China’s efforts to enhance its capabilities in sectors like aerospace, new energy vehicles and biotech.
Li dismissed speculation that the strategy is merely a self-serving program which will make use of outsiders to achieve the ultimate goal.
China’s policies do not distinguish between Chinese and foreign companies involved in this undertaking, as long as they are registered in China, he reportedly told the executives.
Nachi, another Japanese robotics company, has been upfront about its ambition to be part of the reform of the manufacturing sector.
“We will be more than honored to be included in this transition,” Liu Xiaobin, head of Nachi’s China operations, told media in August.
What sets the CIIE apart is its sheer scale. Contracts to the tune of billions are expected to be signed during what is essentially an extended trade fair.
It is an enormous opportunity for homegrown tech companies to get a taste of the latest trends firsthand, and to see where there is room for improvement or localization, without an overseas junket.
In a sense, the showrooms at the National Exhibition and Convention Center, where the CIIE is held, are classrooms for foreign “teachers” and their avid Chinese “students.”
Fudan University’s Kong Aiguo nailed it when he said the CIIE will prompt Chinese companies to ask themselves the following questions: Why is the quality of imported goods superior? What kind of firms make these goods? And what is going on in the executives’ heads?
These questions are worth pondering as China rises up the value chain, playing catch-up to manufacturing powerhouses like Germany and Japan. For their part, foreign executives attending the CIIE will perhaps be surprised at how eager their Chinese hosts are for insights.
Many great innovations begin as a form of imitation or even blatant copying. China has come a long way since the days of cheap knockoffs. Its best companies now compete with the world’s best, even dominating a few niche segments.
All this “sudden” change can be attributed to the search for excellence, as well as hundreds of billions of dollars pumped into R&D over the years.
The CIIE itself is testament to China’s unyielding learning spirit that has undergirded much of its 5,000-year history and breathtaking growth for the better part of the past four decades.
After 40 years of reform and opening up, that spirit is still alive and kicking.