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Automation of ammunition production in China could triple output and reduce fatal accidents

09 January 2018

Artificial intelligence and robotics could triple China’s production of bombs and shells by 2028, according to a senior scientist involved in the program to boost ammunition productivity quoted by the South China Morning Post. The scientist told the Hong Kong newspaper that smart machines have begun replacing workers in a quarter of the country’s ammunition and ordnance f

Image: Xinhua
Image: Xinhua

Xu Zhigang, lead scientist with China’s weapon systems intelligent manufacturing program, said smart robots with advanced sensory and manipulative capabilities were able to assemble artillery shells, bombs, rockets and other ordnance, and were five times more productive than humans.

Bottlenecks in explosives and other component production, however, meant that the overall increase in output was likely to be between 100% and 200%.

China has turned to robot automation to populate ammunition factories because of the difficulty of attracting human workers. “However high the salary offered, young people are simply not interested in working in an army ammunition plant nowadays,” Xu said.

According to South China Morning Post, this is in part because of the danger involved in the job, with numerous deadly accidents having occurred at ammunition factories in recent years.
Over the past six decades, 20 to 30 factories were set up in China. However, most of them are situated in remote locations due to safety concerns. The location of the factories coupled with the nature of the work means employees are difficult to find.

One bomb assembly line that used to have more than 100 workers now had only three after a recent upgrade, Xu said.

The humans now stay in blast shelters, with one worker overseeing the production process via an array of control consoles and the two others tending to tasks that were too difficult for robots, such as connecting fine, loose wires inside a bomb.

The bomb-making robots differed from conventional industrial robots in many ways, Xu said. Their mechanical arms, for instance, drew energy from compressed air instead of electric motors to avoid static electricity.

“One spark could lead to a huge explosion and reduce the plant to a crater,” he said. “The risk of fire was our biggest challenge. It hung over my head like a sword.”

Besides reducing the risk of death or injuries, robot bomb makers had other advantages over humans. They could, for example, weigh a mixture of explosives precisely and press the powder into a warhead with just the right pressure to achieve the optimum density needed to produce the highest possible yield on denotation.

It would take a human worker years to acquire such skills, Xu said, “and the machines never get tired” because they were designed to run full-throttle, non-stop for months.

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