China’s deliverymen face robot revolution as parcel demand soars
At Beijing’s sprawling Renmin University of China, two shiny new couriers dart through throngs of students to deliver parcels throughout the day.
But they’re not typical Chinese deliverymen.
Bright red, grey and black, they are the robot postmen of the future, and are controlled from a command centre 40kms (25 miles) away by e-commerce giant JD.com.
The robots are among technologies revolutionising China’s vast delivery industry, which is struggling to keep pace with 50% annual growth in parcel volumes amid staff shortages, tight competition and declining margins.
“Wages are going up and the technology cost is actually going down,” said Bao Yan, director of strategy at JD Logistics, which manages parent JD.com’s logistics network. “We own the full process… we want to have automation throughout, from the fulfilment centre to transportation and for last-mile delivery.”
To be sure, the robot revolution isn’t unique to China. US online retailer Amazon has staffed warehouses with thousands of robots since 2014, helping cut operating costs and delivery times.
However, Chinese industry executives say they are leapfrogging Amazon as they make use of and develop these technologies at a faster pace, with many investing proceeds from stock market listings last year.
“The adoption rate among Chinese firms is extremely fast. The economy develops so fast so everyone’s rushing to compete, to keep up,” said Johnny Chou, chairman and founder of BEST.