Ro­botic magic — Al­pha shows the way Com­pared with in­dus­trial robots, the out­put value of ser­vice robots may be big­ger in China. But the in­dus­try is still in the em­bry­onic stage, while that for in­dus­trial ro­bot­ics is form­ing.”

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

But the money quickly evap­o­rated when he found him­self caught in a tech­ni­cal bot­tle­neck of de­vel­op­ing the servo-con­troller for the ro­bot’s joints, which play a vi­tal role in de­cid­ing his flex­i­bil­ity.

“I had no idea then whether I could work it out, but I didn’t give up,” Zhou said. He sold his three apart­ments in Shen­zhen to pour an ad­di­tional 20 mil­lion yuan into the pro­ject.

“You need to have good psy­cho­log­i­cal qual­ity and emo­tional quo­tient and be able to con­trol the sit­u­a­tion in a cri­sis. Per­spec­tive is also im­por­tant,” Zhou ob­served. “But first, it’s es­sen­tial to move in the right di­rec­tion.”

In 2008, when Zhou stepped into the field, the ser­vice ro­bot in­dus­try on the main­land was highly un­der­de­vel­oped. Few peo­ple un­der­stood what he was try­ing to do or even knew what a ro­bot re­ally was.

But Zhou fore­saw the prospects of the in­dus­try and spot­ted a po­ten­tial op­por­tu­nity af­ter vis­it­ing Ja­pan and ob­serv­ing robots made in that coun­try. “The cost of Ja­panese-made robots is very high. More­over, users are not able to pro­gram the de­vice by them­selves,” said the 39-yearold en­tre­pre­neur.

“It will make a big dif­fer­ence if these two is­sues are re­solved.”

Al­pha is cur­rently sold at roughly 6,000 yuan on the main­land. Union Brother has also ex­panded its busi­ness to over­seas mar­kets, in­clud­ing Ja­pan, the US and the Mid­dle East, and is still ex­plor­ing new ones. Last month, Al­pha landed in Hong Kong.

“Mar­ket will be one of our fo­cuses this year,” Zhou said.

His com­pany re­cently se­cured $20 mil­lion through a fundrais­ing drive, push­ing its val­u­a­tion to $200 mil­lion.

“Last year, our turnover was 4 mil­lion yuan. This year, we

ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the China Ro­bot In­dus­try Al­liance

ex­pect a vol­ume of 100 mil­lion yuan,” said Zhou, adding that Union Brother has al­ready re­ceived 5,000 or­ders since the be­gin­ning of the year.

Ser­vice robots can be clas­si­fied into two types by ap­pli­ca­tion — those for pro­fes­sional use and those for per­sonal and do­mes­tic use. Al­pha falls into the lat­ter cat­e­gory.

The ser­vice robots in­dus­try has un­der­gone re­mark­able growth in re­cent years.

From 2008 to 2013, some 100,000 ser­vice robots for pro­fes­sional use were sold glob­ally, ac­cord­ing to World Ro­bot­ics 2014, a study con­ducted by the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Ro­bot­ics (IFR).

That is more than the to­tal of 63,500 units sold over the pre­vi­ous 12 years or more. Sales of pro­fes­sional ser­vice robots around the world reached 21,000 in 2013 alone, their to­tal value at $3.57 bil­lion, the study says.

Growth was even more ro­bust for ser­vice robots for per­sonal and do­mes­tic use. In 2013, roughly 4 mil­lion robots of the kind were sold, surg­ing 28 per­cent from 2012 and to­tal­ing $1.7 bil­lion in sales value, the study shows.

IFR es­ti­mates that sales of ser­vice robots for pro­fes­sional use could reach about 134,500 units be­tween 2014 and 2017, their value touch­ing $18.9 bil­lion, while sales of robots for per­sonal and do­mes­tic use could rise to 31 mil­lion units.

De­spite ex­plo­sive de­vel­op­ment on the global scale, mar­ket in­sid­ers be­lieve that the ser­vice ro­bot in­dus­try has much room for growth on the main­land.

“Com­pared with in­dus­trial robots, the out­put value of ser­vice robots may be big­ger in China. But the in­dus­try is still in the em­bry­onic stage, while that for in­dus­trial ro­bot­ics is form­ing,” said Song Xiao­gang, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the China Ro­bot In­dus­try Al­liance.

Ac­cord­ing to the IFR re­port, the Chi­nese main­land be­came the largest in­dus­trial ro­bot mar­ket in 2013. About 36,560 units of in­dus­trial robots were sold in the coun­try, ac­count­ing for 20 per­cent of the to­tal global sales of 178,132.

The gap of­fers a big space for Zhou and other ser­vice ro­bot pro­duc­ers to grow, and he’s go­ing to launch a new-gen­er­a­tion Al­pha later this year.

The up­dated Al­pha will fea­ture more func­tions. Users will be able to down­load dif­fer­ent apps and let Al­pha per­form var­i­ous tasks, such as check­ing weather fore­casts, book­ing air tick­ets or help­ing their kids prac­tice English.

But what wor­ries Zhou most is the lack of recog­ni­tion of ro­bot­ics among youths. “Knowl­edge about robots is still very lim­ited among young peo­ple on the main­land, com­pared with those from Western coun­tries. They are not clear about its history of de­vel­op­ment and the fu­ture di­rec­tion of the in­dus­try,” Zhou said.

He is com­mit­ted to chang­ing the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion by mak­ing hu­manoid robots a com­mer­cial­ized prod­uct that even or­di­nary fam­i­lies can af­ford and uti­lize.

“We are striv­ing to make sure ev­ery fam­ily can en­joy the ben­e­fits brought by robots,” Zhou signed off.

Song Xiao­gang,

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