China ups the motor ante

June 17, 2004
China's motor manufacturers are well versed in small, standard motors. Now they're setting their sights on steppers and servos.

Associate Editor

Chinese manufacturers have been making motors for years. The majority of these have been small ac and dc units for electric tools, toys, and other high-volume applications. But low wages and increasingly sophisticated design skills may soon let them compete at the high end, too.

According to Lei Xia of Ansoft, a maker of design-engineering software, Pittsburgh (www., half of the world's motors are made in China. By far the most prevalent are small motors less than 1 hp. "These are still mostly hand wound," says Xia "because the labor involved is still cheaper than investing in the winding machinery."

As of now, there is very little custom motor manufacturing in China. The design capability isn't quite there yet, but this is already beginning to change. At a recent motor-design seminar sponsored by Ansoft in China, the number of registered attendees was over 1,000. Compare this to an average U.S. outing where 50 registrants are considered a good turnout.

There's no doubt that Chinese motor manufacturers are trying to move upstream into servomotors and steppers, says Dan Jones, a marketing and engineering consultant with over 40 years of motor-design experience, president of Motion Media Group, Thousand Oaks, Calif. (www. They haven't made an impact yet, but they're heading in that direction, he adds.

In terms of design, the Chinese do well with the iron and copper, core components of any motor. They lag in the power electronics for the controls, says Jones. This will most likely change with better understanding of the control electronics, but right now they've got a ways to go. And once they overcome that hurdle, they should be in a position to offer competitive stepper and servomotors, which are at the top of the pyramid in terms of complexity, along with variable-speed motors.

"When you get into designing a servomotor," says Jones, "you really have to get into finite-element analysis. You can't get low cogging unless you play with the geometry of the internal workings of the motor. And you just can't get this without good software and experienced designers."

For Baldor, Fort Smith, Ark. (, competing with Chinese-made motors is nothing new. For years, they have been going head-to-head with manufacturers in Japan, Korea, Mexico, Brazil, and Europe. "The majority of motors manufactured in China that we compete against are sold by our U.S. competitors," says Randy Breaux, Baldor's vice president of marketing.

The fact is the overwhelming majority of motors from China are standard, high-volume, commodity-type motors. If an engineer needs something special, they will likely not be able to get it made in China. "When Chinese OEMs need high-quality motors, they come to us," says Breaux.

Additionally, says Breaux, "we have an experienced and strong workforce here. Why would we want to lose that competitive advantage by moving to China?"

The truth seems to be that for commodity items that are more labor intensive but, design-wise, not too challenging and complex, Chinese manufacturers have the edge simply due to labor costs. The average wage for factory workers is less than $1/hr, versus $15 to $30/hr in the U.S. and Western countries. But, complex designs and custom products will remain here in the U.S., at least for the foreseeable future.

Still, there has been more cooperation between U.S. companies and Chinese manufacturers and universities of late. For instance, Emerson has 30 engineering research programs underway with six of China's leading technological research universities. There are also strategic alliances where American companies have Chinese companies manufacture motors which they then label for them. The Japanese are doing similar things. And now some Chinese motor manufacturers are trying to sell direct to the U.S.

The Chinese are also going for the automotive aftermarket, such as replacing window-lift motors. This has been happening for almost a decade, and now they're moving into the OEM side. SKC, a Japanese company, makes motors in China to sell in the American market. NMB does the same in Thailand.

Lost amid all the talk about outsourcing to China are the formidable "soft" issues. Take service and support. When buying specialty motors for specific applications, chances are the user will need a lot of application support. This is more apt to come from the distribution side of the business than the OEM. And for right now, the Chinese can't handle this.

Another problem is the manufacturing and distribution infrastructure. There aren't any good bearing manufacturers in China, says Jones, so they're forced to buy from the Japanese. They are making the magnets because they control the rare-earth-magnet elements, but the quality from lot to lot still varies significantly. Plus, the transportation infrastructure can vary greatly. It's great in some parts of China but terrible in others, according to Jones.

Besides the technical issues, other less-obvious obstacles hamper Chinese motor-manufacturing success. The other part of the equation has little to do with technology and almost everything to do with economic and political factors. For one thing, how does a formerly communist system with a legacy of centralized government planning handle an emerging free-enterprise system? Right now, there are still state companies with government funding competing against free-enterprise companies. Farmers are starting to leave rural China for the big cities and the government has to figure out how to employ them. This leads to a lot of tension between business and government. Specifically, government being reluctant to give up the power they've enjoyed for all of these years.

But culture plays a big role, too. The Chinese people are very patient and they're used to being managed from the top, be it communism or emperors, adds Jones. This is something which may bode well for managers looking to train loyal employees. On the other hand, when creativity and independent decision-making are needed, this may pose a problem as workers may be reluctant to act on their own without managerial approval.

So for now, cries that the sky is falling may be a bit premature. At least for the time being, the complex designs will stay in the U.S. and Europe. As for five or 10 years down the road, that's anyone's guess.

All the fuss these days is about U.S. jobs moving to China. But Chinese jobs moving to the U.S.? That's exactly what's happening in a South Carolina town.

Haier, China's leading manufacturer of white goods such as refrigerators, washing machines, and air conditioners, has a $40 million factory in Camden, S.C., where it manufacturers refrigerators. Add to that a $15 million headquarters in New York City and the message is that this Chinese manufacturer is here to stay.

Why manufacture in the U.S.? Several reasons, according to the company. First, shipping bulky refrigerators to the U.S. from China expensive, so having a distribution network in place in the U.S. saves Plus, design and production are close to the target market. Another added benefit is that the company can slap a "Made in the U.S.A." sticker on every product it manufacturers.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has just published the record from a January hearing dealing with China's impact on the U.S. manufacturing base. The Commission examined the difficulties U.S. manufacturers face as a result of manufacturing competition from China. Some issues raised were China's artificially undervalued currency, export subsidies, and other WTO-inconsistent practices.

The Commission offered a series of recommendations to Congress including:

  • Having the U.S. Trade Representative and the Dept. of Commerce investigate China's system of government subsidies for manufacturing.
  • Restructuring the U.S. tax code to eliminate incentives for U.S. manufacturing, service, and high-tech companies to shift production, services, and R&D abroad.
  • Enforcing existing trade laws. The full report is available at the Commission's Web site


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