|Accidents in firework factories prompted Beijing to develop a research program to reduce such incidents / Photo Credit: Krunja (via Shutterstock)|
Chinese firework manufacturers are replacing their employees with robots equipped with advanced technologies that were first developed for the military, according to Stephen Chen of South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong English-language newspaper. In the province of Hunan, more than 90% of factory workers lost their jobs over the past three years, per the findings of the provincial government. However, the increase in automation has also triggered a 25-fold increase in the efficiency of automated machines.
The process of manufacturing fireworks can be deadly. In 2010, for instance, 34 people were killed and 152 were hurt in an explosion at a fireworks factory in Yichun. This led Beijing to develop a national research program in 2012 to develop robotic technology to replace humans in the factory. Lead scientist on the program Lei Ming noted, “Fireworks production is a small, backward sector of manufacturing, but our machines needed to be smart, extremely reliable and use cutting-edge technology. It was like the first contact of two worlds."
Lei, who is also the chief engineer at Liuyang Zhongzhou Fireworks Group in Hunan, explained the problem was solved with the assistance of the military. While the People’s Liberation Army was eager to share its technology, its cost proved to be a roadblock for firework companies. So, Lei and his team are trying to make it more affordable. Unlike the robots employed in less explosive industries, the fireworks sector requires high reliability as one misstep or mistake could cause a devastating explosion.
Thanks to the support of the central government, the robot revolution was made possible. Smaller producers adopt the new technology by renting the robots with a small fee. Manager at the Jinlilai Fireworks company in Liling, Hunan Zhan Fengbin initially doubted the robots but after running some tests and making adjustments, he said they started “working like a charm.”
The robots were taught how to bake and mold the gunpowder by the developers. The robots also carry the fireworks from one location to another, as well as insert fuses into the firing tubes. Lei’s company does not have any plans of replacing their employees, as they are still needed for conducting quality inspections. But if labor costs will rise, they will have to be replaced by robots, Lei added.