German engineers under pressure
Stefan Bachmeier still recalls the golden times of German machine builders in China. He works for a company called Kaeser Kompressoren, a medium-sized enterprise from Coburg, Germany. The firm has a workforce of 5,000 and specializes in compressed air technology.
"I remember the times when you could simply say 'look, this is a German machine,'" he said. "Clients would pay, there was little haggling over the price — but those times are gone," adds Bachmeier, who oversees the company's Asia business from Singapore.
Although the "Made in Germany" label is still highly valued, it's no longer a unique selling point. "The Chinese have become very self-confident and nationalist at times," Bachmeier told DW, "and they're very serious about their 'Made in China' campaign."
He says the quality of products from Chinese competitors has improved in recent years, pointing out that while their machines are still less efficient and robust, they are "not bad at all" and are able to satisfy domestic market needs.
Speaking to us at the Hanover industrial fair, Bachmeier mentions his firm is marking its 100th birthday this year. "Our stand at the fair used to be haunted by Chinese businesspeople wanting to buy something, but today they tell you to come to China if you want to sell anything to them."
Infrastructure lagging behind
Cen Guojian, the founder of gear motor producer Zhongda Leader from Ningbo, China, said that not so long ago exhibitors from his country were paid little attention at the fair, but today they are in the limelight.
Zhongda Leader is one of 1,500 Chinese firms represented at the Hanover fair. It started out with just 5 employees in 2006 and has since developed into a listed company of 1,400 workers. Cen believes the Chinese still have a long way to go before becoming global leaders. "But as far as infrastructure is concerned, we've already left the Germans behind," adding that "in Germany, there are still places without internet access — that's unthinkable in China."
Fang Weizhong agrees that the power balance is shifting. "Some 10 years ago, Chinese visitors would marvel at what was going on at, say, Siemens production facilities," said the CEO of Easitech, a company producing engines for electric cars. "Nowadays, many German factories pale beside comparable Chinese plants."
China is the world's biggest market for electric vehicles. Last year alone, some 1.3 million units were sold in the Asian nation, while only about 70,000 were shifted in Germany in 2018. This means that the bulk of Easitech's engines are sold to Chinese customers, Fang says.
But if you take a closer look at Easitech's stand in Hanover, you'll also be able to spot robots from Swiss firm ABB. "This is where our current weakness shows," Fang said. "We still need hardware from top industrialized nations to make our products. He also pointed out that China needed a lot of catching up to do when it came to training skilled workers.
Competition getting fiercer
The gap in robotics between China and its rivals is definitely narrowing, especially in the field of lightweight construction robots, or cobots, that is robots working hand in hand with their human colleagues, says Gerald Vogt, who heads the robotics segment of Swiss engineering firm Stäubli.
"There are already 40-50 producers of such cobots in China, many of them startups," said Vogt. The Chinese state is pumping a lot of subsidies into them — about one-third of all robots sold in China today are actually produced by Chinese enterprises."
There's only one thing European firms can do to remain competitive. "It's important that we remain innovative and speed up our development processes," Vogt told DW. "Maybe the Chinese are still behind in terms of the performance parameters of their robots, but they market their products very fast."
Stefan Bachmeier of Kaeser Kompressoren believes that a steady flow of improvements is required to stay ahead in the game. He views Industry 4.0 as a big opportunity, despite the digitalization of production processes being a stressful experience for small and medium-sized enterprises.
"If we only built machines, we'd be in an impasse — even if these machines get better and better," he said. But Industry 4.0 means the combination of both hardware and software, and that can give us an edge over competitors."