NOBLELIFT, BASED in Changxing, a town on the banks of Tai Lake, provides robotic tools for warehouse management: self-driving pallet jacks and sorting systems that make picking and fetching quicker and less dependent on humans. The factories in which it builds its wares are themselves a blur of robot arms. “There’s no comparison with the way things used to be,” says Ding Yi, Noblelift’s founder. The company’s main factory has only 350 workers. He says that in the old days it would have needed nearly four times as many.
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In 2010 China was home to fewer than 50,000 industrial robots. Today it has 800,000—nearly one in three of the robots in the world. This is in part because robots are cheaper than they used to be, and more capable. But it is also because, as China has grown wealthier and older, wages have…