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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
China's sensor industry
Article Type: Viewpoint From: Sensor Review, Volume 30, Issue 1
Robert Bogue is an Associate Editor.
Keywords Sensors, China, Manufacturing industries, Exports
Why are so many European and American companies rushing to do business with China? The answer is simple: China has the world's third largest manufacturing output and with a gross domestic product of over US$4 trillion, the country simply cannot be ignored. Despite questions surrounding its human rights record, many improvements have been made during the 60 years since the communists came to power: average life expectancy has doubled; illiteracy has fallen dramatically; the number of universities has increased ten-fold to around 2,000; efforts are being made to remediate the environmental damage caused by rapid industrialisation; and the boom in manufacturing is gradually reducing rural poverty by offering mass-employment. This includes many sensor-using industries such as vehicle production, aerospace, armaments, chemicals, consumer products and industrial electronics and rather than relying on imports, the country is fast developing a domestic sensor manufacturing industry which is already capable of producing several billions of units per annum. This is still little known in the West and when, a short time ago, I purchased a residential carbon monoxide detector I paid little attention to the “Made in China” label. After all, so many products are now Chinese and I assumed that this was just another example of a low-cost consumer item manufactured in a region with low-labour costs. It was only after starting to research the article that appears in this issue that I realised the full significance of this: China is poised to become a major player in the global sensor industry. No other country has ever seen such rapid growth in sensor manufacturing and as a result of both technology transfer from the West and domestic developments, China is already producing a diversity of sensing devices: pressure and temperature sensors, accelerometers, flowmeters, infra-red detectors, gas sensors and analysers, optical encoders, load cells and weighing systems, humidity sensors, air and water pollution monitors and wireless sensors, to name but a few. It also has a significant, government-funded research effort covering topics such as biosensors, gas sensors, nanosensors, lab-on-a-chip technology, MEMS sensors and wireless sensor systems.
Returning to the carbon monoxide detector, this uses a simple sensor of a type that could readily be manufactured in the UK yet it can be produced in China, shipped over a distance of almost 5,000 miles (8,000 km) and still be sold at a highly competitive price. While labour rates continue to be a fraction of those in the West, China is uniquely positioned to generate huge export revenues and many sensor manufacturers have already established, or are actively seeking, agents in Europe and the USA. Look at a Chinese sensor maker's web site and you will often receive a message inviting you to represent them, with the promise of the “best possible prices”. A number of China's gas sensor manufacturers now generate over 50 per cent of their revenue from exports and some of the country's 500-odd automotive component specialists are already supplying sensors to overseas vehicle makers. As a result of major automotive multinationals setting-up Chinese subsidiaries or distribution offices with the aim of capitalising on the country's rapidly growing vehicle-making sector, competition has intensified, leading to domestic manufacturers offering even lower prices. Whilst the majority of the sensors used in most of the world's industrialised nations are still presently produced in Europe, America or Japan, this situation will very soon change. In many sensor applications, price is the critical issue and just as most low-cost consumer electronic products now originate from the emerging Far Eastern economies I predict that sensors will soon follow suit, placing enormous pressures on established, Western manufacturers.