Robot industry growth ‘astounding’

By Zhang Hongpei and Chu Daye Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/24 21:58:39

Experts say more efforts are still needed to close tech gap

A boy watches as a robot performs a dance at the 2017 World Robot Conference in Beijing on Wednesday. Photo: CFP

China is catching up with the world's leading robotic powers and fears that mass adaptation of robots will hit employment should not be overstated, industry experts said Thursday.

A report by the Chinese Institute of Electronics published on Wednesday predicted that the number of industrial robots in China will exceed 110,000 units this year and realize a market scale of $4.22 billion yuan.

By 2020, the domestic robotics market, already the world's largest, will be worth $5.89 billion, according to the report.

The rapid growth is partly down to the Chinese government and companies working together, experts attending the 2017 World Robot Conference being held in Beijing said Thursday.

Narrowing gap

Leo Chen, China key account manager at SoftBank Robotics, told the Global Times Thursday that the domestic robot industry's growth in the last three to five years has been due to tremendous policy support from the government and enterprises' active involvement.

China made development of the robot and artificial intelligence industries a key task in the "Made in China 2025" strategy, a 10-year drive to upgrade the country's manufacturing capacity.

"Nowhere else in the world will you find a government giving so much attention and support to the robot industry, and companies working so hard," Chen said, adding that the World Robot Conference is a good example to illustrate his point.

While the likes of ABB and Yaskawa still lead the world in robot technologies, domestic companies such as Siasun are catching up.

Shanghai-based Siasun is currently focused on collaborative robots, which are more safe, flexible and easy to use compared with traditional robots, and this type of robot is usually applied in 3C (computer, communication, consumer electronic) products.

However, China's robot industry still lacks core components and technology, Chen noted.

"Robots contain many technologies involving interdisciplinary knowledge. In this sense, our research is not enough, and there is a big disparity with other powers such as Europe, the US, Japan and South Korea," Chen said.

Rolf Pfeifer, a Swiss consultant with Living with Robots Co, told the Global Times on Thursday that it's natural for Chinese robot firms to start from learning and intimating.

"China's robot industry is lagging behind the technological leaders. However, if you look at the speed with which the Chinese robot industry is developing, it's astounding," Pfeifer said. "No other country has made such big progress in such a short period."

According to estimates by the International Federation of Robotics, installment of robots in China surged by 27 percent year-on-year in 2016 to 87,000 units.

The figure is close to one-third of all global robot installations in the year. By 2019, the figure is expected to double to 160,000 units.

"We can expect China's robot industry to soon reach or even surpass the level of other countries, and the application of robots will be in more industries, backed by the enormous efforts of the government," Pfeifer noted.

But for this progress to be sustainable, it's important to be innovative rather than just catching up with the global level, he advised.

Chen also stressed the significance of technology-driven development of the domestic robot industry to tackle the current lack of core technology.

"It cannot be purely market-led… The high threshold of the industry means that more pragmatic efforts are needed," Chen said.

Impact on China's development

Although the robot industry has been prospering in recent years, public concerns that it might replace traditional workers have been growing.

"In the short term, robots may lead to some reduced employment, but the flip side of the coin is that human beings, specifically blue-collar workers who have been engaged in the unhealthy industrial environment doing routine and boring jobs, can be released from that," Pfeifer noted.

In this sense, as more people pursue higher-level demand and become more creative, more efforts and investment should be put into education to help support this, according to Chen from  SoftBank Robotics.


blog comments powered by Disqus