The World's Largest Economy

In China, Manufacturing is Still an Honorable Profession

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Now that the plant automation system has been brought up to world-class, Wang can concentrate on things like asset management and advanced process control—quite a jump from 1000 wrench turners and knob tweakers just four or five years ago. He can also look into things like environmental monitoring systems like Rockwell's Pavilion Technologies.

Wang was very forthcoming about why they chose Rockwell and Siemens over other vendors. Rockwell's system, he said, was much more open and user-friendly and did not require the purchase of the same vendor's field devices to ensure compatibility. Siemens, Wang said, was similar, although he noted that Rockwell's in-country support was somewhat better. There were potential downsides, however. Yokogawa, he said, had the application down, and Rockwell had not yet produced a system this large in China. It could have been a career limiting move, he admitted.

"We're not number one in China yet," Wang said. "Bao Steel in Shanghai is bigger…so far. But we hope our KPIs will be better than Bao."

Working Together

One of the interesting things about Chinese manufacturing is how seemingly disparate companies work together. Wang mentioned that the clinkers and fly ash his plant produces and no longer just dumps or sends up in the air now go to JiDong Cement in Tangshan, several hours drive East of Beijing. Interestingly, we had visited JiDong Cement the previous day, meeting with Zhang Chunhua, the deputy general manager of the plant.

JiDong is only the third-largest cement producer in China, but even so, they are capable of 100 million tons of cement production every year. And judging from the activity and the number of JiDong trucks on the roads, they must be at maximum production. JiDong is now a public company, Tangshan JiDong Cement, which enabled it to raise capital and acquire loans from the government to upgrade its automation systems and expand the plant.

Mr. Zhang described the value-add of the multimillion dollar control room upgrade he'd just finished using PlantPAx. "We've had Rockwell PLCs in the plant since 1995, so it was natural to go to them for the upgrade," Zhang said. "We opted for more sequential control very early, and we make one product very well."

Zhang became somewhat strained, though, when he discussed the "political" goals he has to achieve. He is under lots of pressure from the provincial government to improve energy efficiency in his plant. After all, cement manufacture is a hugely energy-intensive process. He feels that he can probably achieve some level of sustainable manufacturing, but he is concerned that the goals he's been set are what we would call "stretch goals." "We are looking at a pilot project with Pavilion Technologies this summer," he said. "We'll see how it does."

Zhang also commented on what his key requirements are for automation systems, with the understanding that Rockwell had met them. Service, he believes, not necessarily price is what JiDong requires. "It is the reliability of the system that is important to us," he said repeatedly.

His team of automation engineers and technicians started with five people in 1995 when Rockwell first started installing PLCs. Today, he has about 400 automation professionals and a control room with roughly 40 control stations each with operators on duty. "We've even experimented with fieldbus," Zhang said. "We decided to go with the one from Siemens." A little questioning revealed that it was Profibus, which apparently in some parts of China is considered semi-proprietary to Siemens.

Leaving Beijing, we flew to Xi'an, which has a fabled and very long history. It was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road for nearly two millennia and was the capital of China for 1000 years. It is the home of the tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, who, until his tomb was discovered in the early 1950s, was considered almost a mythical character in Chinese prehistory.

We visited the system integrator Rockwell purchased two years ago, Xi'an HengSheng Industrial Automation Co., Ltd (www.heng-sheng.com). They made it possible for me to visit two universities and a major power systems EPC.

Major Universities and Automation: The Four Great Inventions

At the universities, I discovered huge differences between Chinese academia and the West. At Xi'an Jiaotong University, founded in the 1880s and one of the oldest technical schools in China, I visited with Dr. Xu Yang and several of his professors. Xi'an Jiaotong University has a school of Electrical Engineering. Within the School of Electrical Engineering, Dr. Xu is dean of the Department of Industrial Automation, with several hundred students. Now contrast this with my own alma mater, the University of California at Santa Cruz, where the engineering department doesn't even offer industrial automation or applied manufacturing courses at all.

Dean Xu pointed out a large sculptural setting in one of the quads of the Engineering School. It shows, he said, "the four great inventions of China. These are the great inventions that China has given to the world." The inventions are the compass, the art of papermaking, the invention of moveable type and printing, and the invention of gunpowder. Western writers from Francis Bacon to Karl Marx have commented that these inventions did much to create the modern age. In China, they, along with many other seminal inventions, are used to show how ancient China's technology base was.

Dean Xu was among several people who commented that from around 260 BCE to 1850 CE, China was the largest economy and one of the greatest technical civilizations in the world. The Chinese fervently believe that this came to an end with the Opium Wars, in which the Western powers, especially Great Britain, forced the Chinese government to permit them to sell opium in China. "This destroyed our economy," Xu said. "In 1949 we began rebuilding it, and we have a national goal to become once again the world's largest economy and technical powerhouse."

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