A robotic future

By Chen Qingqing in Shanghai Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/23 17:08:39

China’s targets for service robot market set to revolutionize dynamics of industrial factories

A worker operates industrial robot arms in the workshop of Shanghai-FANUC Robotics Co in Baoshan district of Shanghai. Photo: Chen Qingqing/GT

The "Made in China 2025" strategy unveiled two years ago by the State Council, China's cabinet, is urging domestic manufacturers to upgrade. One crucial part of the strategy is accelerating the automation and deployment of industrial robots. Meanwhile, the continued proliferation of the Internet and smartphone is also boosting the development of service robots. As more and more Chinese factories install industrial robots and tech startups rush into developing diversified service robots, China is now becoming a huge robotics market. Global Times recently traveled to several robot companies in Shanghai and discovered hot trends in the sector as well as its remaining challenges.

A decade ago, it was hard to imagine that someday in the future, workers at a phone assembly line in China would no longer need to grab components on a conveyor belt and insert them into an integrated circuit block themselves, a robot could instead do all this work. Fast forward to today, in some factories, robots can now work alongside humans.

China's fast-growing robotics market has driven more funds for industry investment in the past two years, which has in return lured more manufacturers into the automation sector. Due to rising labor costs and evolving production processes, the manufacturing sector has been urged to shift toward high added value.

The government has also set a slew of concrete targets for the industry to reach by 2020.

For example, the annual output of self-sufficient industrial robots is set to reach 100,000 units, according to a guideline unveiled by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in April 2016. The annual output of 6-axis industrial robots, which feature articulated arms for dexterity and flexibility, is expected to hit 50,000 units.

"Many foreign players in the industry are starting to notice China's huge potential within the robotics market," William Liu, general manager of Kollmorgen, a Virginia-based designer and manufacturer of motion control products, told the Global Times.

As an original equipment manufacturer, Kollmorgen serves about 60 percent of collaborative robots (co-robots) manufacturers worldwide, with KUKA, one of the world's largest industrial robot producers, being one of them. 

Large scale deployment of industrial robots, commonly installed in the auto industry, has now extended to other sectors in China including the computer, communication, and consumer electronics (3C), food and beverage, and home appliance sectors.

Simultaneously, more start-ups have been rushing into the service robot sector over the past two years and designing new products, which have later been used in homes, restaurants, banks and even administrative agencies. 

Robots as colleagues 

A few years ago, many factories in China's Pearl River Delta region, the heartland of manufacturing, would not have survived if they had not been equipped with industrial robots. This was because they had no choice but to increase efficiency, especially during a time when labor costs continued to rise and recruitment was challenging, Qian Hui, general manager of Shanghai-FANUC Robotics Co, told the Global Times.

The company is a joint venture between Japan's FANUC LTD, a leading industrial manufacturer, and Shanghai Electrical Industrial Company.

"Some factories that didn't introduce automation soon became obsolete," Qian said, noting that the company provides robots to about 30,000 manufacturers for now, including those in automotive, consumer products and food industries.

"Even now, some furniture producers have begun using industrial robots," but the cost of ownership for them is relatively high during earlier stages, he said.

A workshop in one of Shanghai-FANUC's factories located in the Shanghai Industrial Park of Robotics in Baoshan district is full of yellow industrial robot arms.

Some of these are equipped with visual tracking systems, which enable them to select different items and then place them precisely. Other robots can do pick-and-place non-stop with items that weigh between 25 kilograms and 50 kilograms. These yellow robots require safety fences to be installed within large spaces.

However, several green robots at the workshop, which perform tests by carrying a tire and moving it around, are much smaller and are installed in open spaces without fences.

"The green ones are co-robots that can work with employees… there is a sensor here so that the robot will stop when it gets close to a human worker, which ensures their safety," explained a technician surnamed Wang.

As the production line cannot be 100 percent automated so far, factories that have high-mix and low volume production are more likely to use co-robots instead of traditional heavy industrial robots. In terms of the relationship between co-robots and industrial robots, "I think it's complementary," Adam J. Sobieski, general manager of Danish co-robot manufacturer Universal Robots, told the Global Times Wednesday.

"Traditional industrial robots with safety fencing will continue to exist, but the co-robots industry segment will grow faster," he said.

As robots spread into many different industries, there is an increasing likelihood that they will be in contact with human beings, who need to feel comfortable with them, need to learn how to operate them and need to know how to stay safe around them, "so this is very different from [operating with] traditional robots," he added.

According to Sobieski, focusing solely on developing co-robots could be seen as a major advantage for the company, which faces rivalry from companies like KUKA and FANUC, companies that have already been throwing money into the co-robots industry segment.

 Co-robots are usually easy to install and more suitable for quick line changeovers, which are mainly used in the 3C and home appliance industries.

Challenges to upgrading

China continues to lead the growth of worldwide robotics implementation, which will account for more than 30 percent of worldwide robotics spending by 2020, according to a report released by US market consultancy IDC in April. Furthermore, the country's spending on robotics used in the consumers sector will grow 38 percent annually, the report noted.

Despite the rapid growth, how to make robots smarter in different scenarios is a common question for not only the manufacturing sector, but for the services sector too.

"At the earlier stages of robot development, Chinese companies will firstly identify which components their foreign rivals use, but they will also need to distinguish themselves from others with new and diverse ideas," Liu from Kollmorgen said.

"From 2015 to 2016, there was a boom in the service robots sector in China, but it takes time to find out which [robot companies] are sustainable, and which are not," Jiang Huabing, CEO of Shanghai Clever mRobot Technologies Co, told the Global Times Tuesday.

Jiang said the robot start-up has allocated a large part of its spending on R&D, similar to how Huawei operates.

Additionally, he sees the company as an assembly line for the emergence of different technologies. For instance, by teaming up with some leading companies in voice recognition software like iFLYTEK, the company can gain quick access to cutting-edge technologies and maximize their value in different scenarios.

"As a start-up, the company is still 'burning money' at the moment, but we have to be confident and patient," Jiang said.

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