Chinese property giant turns to robots

A prototype driverless vehicle at China Vanke's research centre at Dongguan in Guangdong province. The vehicle has been designed to shuttle up to 10 people across the company's sprawling residential estates.
A prototype driverless vehicle at China Vanke's research centre at Dongguan in Guangdong province. The vehicle has been designed to shuttle up to 10 people across the company's sprawling residential estates. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG • China Vanke, the biggest property developer by sales in the world's most populous country, is developing robots to sweep floors and guard its properties in the face of a labour shortage and rising wage bills.

As Chinese property developers struggle with lacklustre sales and tighter industry margins, China Vanke, like many, is looking to premium concierge services to attract customers and says robots will provide some of those services.

You can already buy a robot waiter for 40,000 yuan (S$8,900) on Alibaba Group's Taobao, China's leading online marketplace, but Vanke is developing its own robots, mostly for janitorial, security and transportation services, which are more labour-intensive than the core business of land acquisition, project planning and construction.

"We estimate that with today's growth and the changes to China's personnel structure, that at least 30 per cent of our jobs will be replaced by robots," Vanke chairman Wang Shi told a university forum in Hong Kong recently.

Vanke rolled out a driverless car and a patrol robot earlier this year and plans to introduce a floor- sweeping robot at the end of this month. Mr Wang said in August that eight robot chefs already worked in restaurants that serve its developments. He added that the company would open a robot-managed hotel in the southern city of Shenzhen in 2017.

Vanke expects its total number of employees to jump to one million from the current 40,000 in the next decade.

China's urbanisation push and ageing population have made workers, especially younger ones, much more footloose and less willing to work in smaller cities, resulting in a spike in wages across the country.

Foxconn, the trading name of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry, which employs more than one million factory workers in China, is also stepping up its adaptation of robotics to ease a labour crunch. Chairman Terry Gou has said the company aimed to build one million robots.

On a recent visit to Vanke's research centre in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan, Reuters reporters saw a researcher working on a prototype driverless vehicle designed to shuttle up to 10 people across its sprawling residential estates. "Nowadays, some housing estates or commercial malls cover a large area and feature long paths," said Mr Zhang Jinming, a staff member involved in the automation project.

"Our driverless cars can solve the problem of transportation within roughly one kilometre and it won't involve any labour cost."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2015, with the headline 'Chinese property giant turns to robots'. Print Edition | Subscribe