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An Upcoming Worldwide Competitor: South Korea’s Machine Tool Industry

An Upcoming Worldwide Competitor: South Korea’s Machine Tool Industry

An uncertain world stage and political issues in South Korea saw the nation go through a record-high recession in 2016 which affected machine tool exports. Does 2017 spell better news for the country? By Jonathan Chou

Over the past few decades, South Korea has risen to be a globally competitive manufacturing economy with tight integration into global markets.

With a highly developed manufacturing economy, South Korea’s rank placed seventh overall in the “Manufacturing Technology Top Markets Report” released by the International Trade Administration in the US.


The South Korean market is generally quite open and transparent, and in 2015 it was ranked fourth out of 189 in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” economic rankings.

According to Gardner’s world machine tool survey, the country is also the world’s fifth-largest producer of machine tools. Two large conglomerates, the Samsung Group and the Hyundai Motor Group, are leading manufacturers of machine tools through strategic acquisitions. Other major players include Doosan, Hwacheon and Hankook.

2016 Woes

In 2016 however, the Korea Machine Tools Manufacturers Association (Komma) reported that the machine tool industry in Korea was faced with a major crisis.

Chaos caused by Brexit, low growth in major countries such as the US and China, depressed investments in main industries such as automobile and shipbuilding industries coupled with recent political upheaval giving rise to economic struggles. As a result, a record-high recession in Korea continued in January through November 2016.

Machine tool exports in March 2017 also recorded US$156 million, a decrease of 19.9 percent from the same month in 2016, according to Komma. Previous year exports in March were US$176 million (2014), US$183 million (2015) and US$195 million (2016). Exports in the January-March 2017 period decreased 20.9 percent year-on-year to US$400 million.

Silver Lining

However, the global economy has gathered pace in 2017 with better conditions for international trade. According to Statistics Korea, the equipment investment index in March increased by 12.9 percent from the previous month and 22.8 percent year-on-year.

Accordingly, Komma reported that machine tool orders in March 2017 amounted to 265.5 billion won (US$ 231.1 million), up 23.1 percent compared with the same month of 2016. Previous year orders in March were US$283.8 million in 2014, US$247.4 million in 2015 and US$190.2 million in 2016, and orders from January to March decreased 1.1 percent year-on-year to US$585.4 million.

Higher Value Automotive Exports

South Korea’s automotive industry is also the fifth-largest in the world by both automobile unit production and export volume, according the International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers.

Korean automobile production reached 1.42 million cars during January to April this year, a thin 1.1 percent increase compared with the same period in 2016.

The tally, released by the Ministry of Trade, Industry And Energy (MOTIE), also pinpointed Korean automobile exports amounted to US$14 billion during the year’s first four months, a 5.2 percent expansion over the year earlier. The increase rate contrasted with a two percent drop in terms of export volume, an indication of high-value car exports of Korean car assemblers.

The export of eco-friendly cars such as Hyundai’s Ioniq and Kia’s Niro steadily expanded and the export of large-sized cars also grew. By region, Korea chalked up increases in exports to all regions except for North America and Asia.

Government Support

Efforts are also being made by the South Korean government to make its mark in the world stage of Industry 4.0 while revitalising the economy.

Announced by MOTIE this year, the “Fourth Basic Plan for Development Of Materials And Parts Industries (2017-2021)” is a series of policies and funds totalling US$36 million being set aside to support the 4th Industrial revolution.

Through the plan, the government will receive feedback through five representative organisations, with Korea Institute of Materials Science for metals, and the Korea Automotive Technology Institute for machinery and automobiles. It will also provide comprehensive services linking related centres, resolve corporate difficulties on a one-stop basis, and respond to the technology convergence trends seen in Industry 4.0.

In addition, the government also plans to expand support to 12 new industries, including the system industry (electrical and autonomous cars) as well as the materials and parts industry (high-tech new materials, augmented reality and virtual reality).

A Grain Of Salt

However, nothing is for certain. Economic recovery in major industries in Korea such as shipbuilding and steel remains unclear. In addition, with recent political upheaval, shrinking consumption is prevalent, further delaying business improvement; Komma said it would be difficult to expect a high rate of recovery in 2017.

However, the economies of developed countries including the US and Europe are starting to recover. In-demand industries such as semiconductors, display, information technology equipment and general machines are engaging in active investment in facilities.

Coupled with the previous year’s base effect of underperformance, the association concludes that machine tool manufacturing in South Korea is generally expected to increase.

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