China’s next great leap: Industry 4.0

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China is an emerging Industrial IoT superpower, making huge investments in the technology, networks, skills and infrastructure it needs to ride the next wave of digital change.

Made in China 2025

The World Bank reports that manufacturing contributed 40 percent of China’s GDP in 2017. Maintaining this key sector means China’s ‘Made in China 2025’ Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) strategy focuses most on manufacturing than other areas, but its investments are paying off in multiple verticals.

Alex Sinclair, chief technology officer, GSMA states: “China is betting big on the Industrial IoT to increase productivity and drive efficiencies by streamlining and automating manufacturing processes via internet connectivity. Backed by positive government support, China is set to become the world’s leader.”

According to the GSMA, China will account for a third (4.1 billion) of the world’s Industry IoT (IIoT) connections by 2025, and IDC says that China accounted for 28 percent of global spending on IoT and 29 percent of total robotics investment in 2017.

Investing in infrastructure

The country has always been willing to make big infrastructure investments to secure its future. Accenture predicts China’s IoT investments could add $196 billion to cumulative GDP in “manufacturing industries alone” over the next 15 years.

IoT deployments are being put in place across all the key sectors: manufacturing, public services, energy and resources, healthcare, education and transportation.

A great example of scale: One of the world’s biggest transportation deployments is the 100,000 IoT sensors put in place along a 1,400km stretch of artificial canal in China. These monitor the waterway for structural damage, intruders, water quality and more, enabling the system to operate at peak efficiency. China is also investing in machine learning for automated fault reporting and response systems.

Network deployments

China aims to connect 600 million devices to Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) networks by 2020. NB-IoT has emerged as China’s favored LPWAN (Low-Power Wide-Area Network) strategy – and will be essential to its IoT plans.

“The country has embarked on one of the world’s largest digital infrastructure projects that will result in billions of new connected devices in the next five years,” said Berg Insight analyst, Tobias Ryberg.

China’s big three mobile networks (China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom) will use this standard to connect numerous smart systems: vehicles, healthcare monitors, billboards, vending machines and more.

Foundations for the future

These fast network deployments will be foundational to the country’s next moves in IoT, enabling the benefits of these connected solutions to reach consumer and industry users alike.

One big advantage is that some key infrastructure components can be manufactured locally by the likes of Huawei and ZTE.

China has also learned from experience. The country is actively investing in international standards bodies rather than driving itself into a developmental cul-de-sac by insisting on China-only standards.

These deep investments also attract further investment. Siemens and Alibaba Cloud will put MindSphere on Alibaba Cloud to provide cloud-based IoT services for Industry 4.0 deployments in China.

TelChina is involved in numerous smart city projects, introducing intelligent solutions for real-world problems such as energy conservation public information, municipal administration and water and energy network management. Shenzhen Water Group began installing smart water meters in 2017.

Smart cities

NB-IoT networks are already in place in over 300 Chinese cities. Over a billion people are expected to live in China’s biggest cities by 2050, which has enabled a proliferation of smart city services. ABI Research notes smart energy, transportation, and public safety services are becoming ubiquitous across most major Chinese cities.

"The global city of the future will be a smart, interconnected environment where all the new transformative technologies, such as big data, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and renewable energy are combined," says Mark Haefele, Global Chief Investment Officer of UBS Wealth Management. "And China is ready to embrace the tech revolution."

Ride-sharing and bike-sharing schemes are also incredibly popular. Berg Insight claims tens of millions of shared bikes were deployed across China last year and one of the world’s biggest ride-sharing companies, Didi Chuxing, is deeply involved in autonomous car development.

What about the software?

“The competitive success of new IoT initiatives [in China], particularly in the consumer space, will be driven by software,” said Viktor Ariel, PhD, Founder and CEO of SURE Universal at the recent World Internet of Things Convention.

Ariel’s argument is that without great software smart services won’t be so successful. However, modern China has its own thriving developer community that is attracting global talent. China’s equivalent to Silicon Valley, Shenzhen, is now home to many IoT start-ups with global ambitions. Apple claims it now has over two million iOS developers in China alone and a range of IoT solutions providers (Ayla Networks, LifeSmart and Gizwits) have emerged to help local firms drive into AI and IoT.

Conclusions

China’s deep investments in network and technology infrastructure, an innovation-friendly culture, and a growing cadre of highly educated and experienced developers mean the country is progressing rapidly to weave digital efficiency into daily life. Governments worldwide would do well to look to how the country is managing this transition to deliver their own digital dividend.

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Jon Evans

Jon Evans is highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men’s interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.