Norman's News - Thoughts on China in 2017

Added Wednesday, June 7 2017

I have just returned from China (via San Diego actually, but that story is for another day), not having visited the country for nearly twenty years.  

In 1998, I went to Shanghai and Bejing, as one of a small group of guests of the Shanghai Institute of International Affairs. There I learned that China wished to “switch on” capitalism but carefully and in a controlled fashion.

I was impressed with the vision and aspiration but sceptical; few countries and organisations have ever managed such a transformation successfully and still much of the products on the streets and in the shops looked dated to my western eyes. So when the Royal and Chinese Academies of Engineering invited me to visit Shanghai last month, I couldn’t resist.

The occasion was the first International Symposium on Smart and Optimal Manufacturing in the Process Industry and it was organised jointly by Professor Feng Qian of the East China University of Science and Technology, Shanghai and by Prof David Bogle, of University College London.

Prof Qian told us “The major developed and developing countries are speeding up smart manufacturing. Germany, the United States, and China have released Industry 4.0, ……… aiming at a deep integration of information and communication technology with manufacturing technology….This now includes petroleum, chemical engineering, steel, nonferrous metal, and building materials.”

Prof Bogle added, “Much progress has been made in achieving plant- and site-wide optimization, but benchmarking would give greater confidence. Exploiting intelligence from big data to drive agility will require tackling new challenges, such as how to ensure the consistency and confidentiality of data through long and complex supply chains.”

So it was that researchers from Belgium, Canada, China, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, discussed how super computer simulation, allied with detailed measurements from sensors connected through the cloud, can make enormous differences to carbon release and energy consumption even, maybe especially, in the “dirtier” processes underpinning our 21st C lifestyle.

Moreover, the outcome was visible in the streets, of cities, towns and villages. No smoke, no smell of sulphur, quiet because the once ubiquitous two stroke has all but been banned in favour of fully electric scooters and bikes. Buses are becoming all electric and, though we weren’t on them, a vast fleet of 300kph high-speed trains link the cities of the eastern coastal plains. We flew on Airbuses and Boeings but while we were out there, the first flight of China’s own plane was announced.

So what was I doing there, why had my flight been paid? I did wonder that myself for I am not a process engineer. I had agreed to speak on the RAE Enterprise Hub in the context of our Catalyst Inc story. My talk was moved to the end of the last session and so I thought I would have no audience.

Far from it! Whereas all the technical talks had been greeted with polite applause and some erudite questions from the other luminaries, mine fired up the younger audience, the research students and the post docs and that was what was wanted. In China, big business and industry needs to be refreshed from the bottom up and personal knowledge-based enterprise is becoming the order of the day. They know that the old jobs, retail, taxi-driving, call-centres, repetitive manufacturing are disappearing and the young must learn how to create jobs for themselves and their peers; just as much as we do!