The World's Largest Economy

In China, Manufacturing is Still an Honorable Profession

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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."

Both Dean Xu and his counterpart across town at the Xi'an University of Technology, vice dean of the college of automation and information engineering, Liu Han made much of the academic partnerships with commercial enterprises that are common in China. These partnerships benefit both sides, including the individual professor, who generally receives an additional stipend for managing the program. One such program is the development of a large silicon billet caster at Xi'an University of Technology so that the Chinese electronics industry can advance in its goal of being self-sufficient in chip making. The quality required to make this project work points out that the generally accepted belief that Chinese can only produce poor quality work is a stereotype and generally untrue.

Diversity is Ahead in China

Getting back to HengSheng, I learned how fairly large (roughly $10 million/year) system integrators operate in China. They have very close partnerships with end-user companies and the EPCs, like the Northwest Electric Power Design Institute, which we visited in Xi'an. HengSheng is concentrated in the "balance of plant" portion of electric plant controls, but it also does water/wastewater and is expanding into other automation verticals. One very interesting thing about the company is that approximately 60% of the engineering staff is women, and the general manager, Han LiQing's wife, is the engineering manager. So not only does China have quality system integrators, but may well be ahead of the West in diversity issues too.

R&D + EPC = Design Institute

The Northwest Electric Power Design Institute ( is like an EPC, but is a wholly-owned subsidiary company of China Power Engineering Consulting (Group) Corporation and acts as much like a combination research and development facility, such as the U.S. government's national labs, as an engineering and procurement contractor. There are six of these design institutes in China, NWEPDI being the coal-fired electric power plant specialists. The hot spot for it is electrical power plants from 20 to 1000 MW. According to newly promoted director, Li Ya Zhou, NWEPDI sees steady growth with many new projects in the next two to three years. While they have been an R&D facility, creating new applications and winning innovation awards, NWEPDI is today focusing on implementing projects. "We have, though," Li said, "been working on an innovative R&D project for a cooling system for nuclear power plants."

HengSheng has welded together a very close partnership with NWEPDI. Most of the NWEPDI projects that are let use HengSheng as the BoP (balance of plant) integrator. From HengSheng, NWEPDI is interested in acquiring fieldbus technology, optimization software, environmental protection and emissions monitoring. The other part of the plant, the BTG (boiler, turbine, generator) usually goes to a large vendor like ABB, Emerson (the former Westinghouse), Foxboro (Invensys) or Siemens. Like any system integrator, even though owned by Rockwell, HengSheng provides best-in-class for every project. If the project requires a Siemens or a Modicon PLC, HengSheng will provide it. As far as Allen-Bradley controls are concerned, the drivers are references, technology, price and seamless integration with Emerson's Westinghouse DCS. Of course, Mr. Li noted, if all the technical requirements are met by all the vendors, price is the most important variable in selection. Mr. Li's two deputies, Bi Jianhui and Wang Furong, are both senior engineering staff and are again among the very large contingent of women in automation in China.

Pharmaceutical Quality

The last plant I visited is a joint venture between Zejiang Huayi Pharmaceutical Company (ZHP) and Esteve Pharmaceuticals ( a Spanish company. Esteve Huayi Pharmaceuticals (EHP) is a contract manufacturer and API manufacturing plant. One of its trains is a continuous process train into which some procedure-controlled automation has been incorporated, and the other, just across the street on the plant site, is a fully batch system, running RSBatch, including validation and record keeping. I met with Yuan Hong Liang, the manager of the engineering department, and his boss, Jin Xu Hu, the general manager of both Esteve Huayi and its Chinese parent. Both trains were spic-and- span, well-instrumented with even some fieldbus (mostly HART) connectivity. The control rooms were well-designed. It could have been a contract manufacturing facility anywhere in the world. Currently, the plant produces 200 tons of API materials. When it is fully operational, it will produce 600 tons. The second phase, to complete the second and third set of trains, is scheduled for 2012, with the third phase scheduled for 2014.

"Of course," Mr. Jin said, "that is going to depend on market demand. Our domestic sales are growing very fast, while our export sales are not growing as fast. Partly because of the fact that the United States and Japan have higher quality, can command higher prices and are certified."

You must understand, Jin went on, "automation is not to reduce costs, it is to improve quality, reduce variability and improve performance. And safety and quality are equal in this company."

The safety rules are posted on huge signs several places in the plant, as well as right by the front gate. "The safety rules," Mr. Jin said, "are very clear. The question is how to enforce the rules. We do it by a regular recurring system of training, inspection, investigation and examination, recursively so the particular injury or damage doesn't happen again."

Jin takes this so seriously that he does all the interviews to communicate the company safety culture to his new hires. Why? Unlike his counterparts in the West, Mr. Jin is personally legally responsible for what happens in his plant, and he doesn't want any chances taken. After the scandals of the last few years, Mr. Jin is devoted to the reputation of ZHP and EHP, and well he should be. "To make the customers happy is the highest intent," Jin said.

In every manufacturing vertical I visited, from steel to cement, to power and to pharmaceuticals, the refrain was the same: "We need to improve our quality so we can improve our profit, and at the same time be energy efficient and sustainable."

In China, it is the energy, the ferment and the drive to again become the world's largest economy.

It would only be fair to thank John Bernaden and Ricky AuYeung of Rockwell, for sharing 11 days with me. I also want to recognize Dunham Yang Yang, of RA, and Huifang Wang and "Linda" Tang from HengSheng, who made logistics easy. There were many plant and RA personnel who made my tour of the process industries in China effective and effortless. Thanks to you all.

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