The huge divergence between China's wealthier coastal regions and its poor, rural areas is mirrored in the technical development levels of its thousands of component makers.
Some plants are modern enough to be mistaken for those in the West. Others are 30 years behind the times.
Even where the equipment is the most modern, though, many plants in China are less automated than those in more developed markets. Low volumes are one reason. But automation would also minimize China's biggest competitive advantage, cheap labor.
"At some of our operations, the existing production technology was from the '70s or '80s, and there are clearly many operations in China that are very labor intensive," says Steve Meszaros, general manager of Yanfeng Visteon Automotive Trim Systems Co. Yanfeng Visteon is a joint venture between Visteon Corp. of Dearborn, Mich., and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.
"At our JVs we have upgraded the technology in the nongreenfield plants. (But) where technology is exclusively for the purpose of reducing labor, you would not put it in place."
It's a different story at most of China's domestic carmakers.
"Everything is modern, up-to-date, imported," says Michael Laske, president of powertrain and test system developer AVL-List GmbH China.
"The feeling is, 'We want to guarantee quality and need the most competitive production equipment to do it.' "
Automakers that don't already have modern equipment are getting it.
Take Great Wall Automobile Holding Co. The light-truck manufacturer in north China's Hebei province is using a 1996 line at one of its plants. But just a few miles away it is building a modern 100,000-unit plant with imported equipment.
Many domestic automakers tend to favor labor over automation in some areas, such as engine component assembly, says Joachim Dobiasch. He is deputy sales division manager at Freudenburg China Group, a seal and vibration control maker.
That's mainly because their volumes tend to be only 30,000 to 80,000 a year, lower than foreign-invested companies.
"You need a certain volume in order to use automation," Do-biasch says.
The same principle applies to suppliers. "The technology is the same, but you don't have robots everywhere," says Ali Ordoobadi, group vice president of China for French parts supplier Valeo SA.
"The volumes are much lower. If you make a fully automated line designed for U.S. volumes, it's not competitive."
Low labor costs keep automation down at foreign-invested automakers with bigger volumes, as well.
"In some areas, such as the body shop, because of the competitiveness of Chinese labor, we use more labor than in the U.S. or Europe," says Kenneth Hsu, vice president of corporate communications for Ford Asia-Pacific.
Too much automation can cancel that competitive advantage, says Jack Perkowski. He is CEO of supplier Asimco Technologies Inc. of Beijing, which makes cam-shafts, piston rings and steering knuckles.
At truckmaker Great Wall Automotive Holding Co., pickups still are made by hand. But a few miles away, the company is building a modern 100,000-unit plant with imported technology.
Says Christina Tan, manager of strategic manufacturing planning for TRW Automotive Inc.'s Asia-Pacific operations: "Automation is not at the top of our list as far as a requirement.
"What we are looking for is good manufacturing processes that have technology built in that will ensure quality and reliability of a level that we would expect of developed regions like North America, Europe and Japan."
TRW's seven joint ventures in China make steering systems, engine valves, safety systems and chassis modules.
Lack of basic tools
All the automation in the world - or lack of it - won't make some Chinese factories efficient because they lack other basic tools.
"We've walked into factories that would make your head spin in terms of the equipment," Asimco's Perkowski says.
"But they weren't turning out good products. It's how you use the equipment and the management process that makes for consistently good quality."
There is one area where automation is a must, whether making cars or components.
Says Hsu: "There are areas of our final assembly that require automation because of quality control."
Valeo's Ordoobadi says the supplier uses robots "in processes where quality is absolutely critical." For example, "the sealant in lights," Ordoobadi says. "The gluing is done by robots."
As China's auto industry grows, so will the need for automation. Changan Ford Automobile Co. Ltd., a joint venture between Ford Motor Co. and Changan Automo-tive Co. Ltd., is investing more in automation because the plant will more than triple its capacity to 200,000 units by year end.
Suppliers also are applying more automation as their volumes grow. And the irony is that more automation may make China less attractive as a cheap source of components.
"The labor costs here are the advantage," Dobiasch says. "This is the reason why more and more suppliers are coming to China."
Alysha Webb is an Automotive News staff correspondent in China