China’s industrial robot production has increased, but it will take China some time to catch up in the global industry.
Photo from CFP
By MA Yueran
China is the largest industrial robot market for the seventh year. In 2020, production reached 237,000 units, up 19.1 percent. The global industrial robot market as a whole fell by 2.9 percent.
Compared with developed countries, China started late in robotics. Giants like KUKA, ABB, FANUC and Yaskawa accounted for more than 70 percent of China's robotics industry market for many years.
CHANG Li is a VP at JAKA Robotics, a Chinese cobot (collaborative robot) company. She describes these overseas operations as slow, both in their delivery and response times. But Chinese suppliers have all kinds of advantages compared to overseas high-tech companies.
They move in the lower end of the market, but that is a very big end, and includes large chunks of the car manufacturing industry, the main theater of operations. Foreign technology usually means the entire vehicle. Homegrown robots usually serve some specific purpose like soldering or spray painting.
But more than 70 percent of China’s industrial robots are in non-automobile industries, statistics from Minsheng Securities suggested.
“We can open up new markets more quickly than overseas companies. It is a big chance for us to catch up with them, or even overtake them,” a senior executive from a public listed robotic company told Jiemiman News. Carmakers will stick to overseas brands while new industries are open to domestic suppliers. Over the last decade, sales of domestic-made robotics went up from 800 in 2011 to 50,000 last year.
“In emerging industries, we are all at the same starting line, more or less. We’re actually much closer to the market, so you could say we have a head start. We certainly hope so. If we make plans earlier and act faster, we hold a lot, if not all, of the cards," said the executive.
The industrial chain can be divided into three phases. The upstream, production of core components; the midstream, the actual robot; and the downstream, programming and fitting for specific functions.
The production of core components accounts for 70 percent of the cost, an area once monopolized by overseas players. With many patents now expired, the most obvious barrier for Chinese robot makers has been removed.
“Technology is not just a patent issue,” Chang said. Other than technology, R&D, marketing and strategy are just as important. The most obvious obstacle in China is demand. Cobots are popular with investors and meet the needs of the global market, but current demand comes nowhere near production capacity.
The traditional robotics leaders no longer lead. Cobots are more flexible and they work with people. MENG Xiaobo, vice president of JAKA, said cobots are the future of industrial automation.
Statistics from GaoGong Industry Institute showed that nearly 10,000 cobots were sold in China last year, 20 percent more than the year before. According to GaoGong, two of the three biggest cobot suppliers are now domestic - JAKA and Aubo Robotics.
While cobots rise up sharply over the recent years, they have limitations. Chang said it's still a niche market for cobots as many small companies either don't know much about them or don't know how to make use of them.
Meanwhile, since cobots work with people, their safety records and intelligence must improve, executives from JAKA told Jiemian News.
A more tricky problem for cobots can be the demands. Different industries want different techniques from the cobots, which means every time the cobots try something new, a lot of coding and debugging is needed, which can take quite some time, and cost a fortune.
Before figuring it out, cobots have a long way to go, Chang said.