Colin An­gle-led iRobot is bet­ting big on con­nected ser­vice de­vices as China ‘has very good ad­van­tages’

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BUSINESS - By WANG YING in Shang­hai wang_y­ing@chi­nadaily.com.cn

iRobot, a US-based man­u­fac­turer of con­sumer robots, is plan­ning to make China the largest mar­ket for its au­ton­o­mous home vac­uum clean­ers by 2022 as the coun­try’s vast mid­dle class chases qual­ity prod­ucts that can save on time spent on chores.

iRobot, led by Colin An­gle, its chair­man, CEO and founder, has al­ready sold more than 15 mil­lion home robots world­wide. A sci­en­tist by train­ing, An­gle made a six-legged au­ton­o­mous walk­ing ro­bot called Genghis at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy as part of his mas­ter’s de­gree course project work.

“China is our fastest grow­ing re­gion and it’s the fourth largest re­gion to­day. China is ex­pected to be the largest mar­ket for ro­bot vacu­ums,” An­gle said.

Last Au­gust, iRobot launched a floor mop­per tai­lor-made for the China mar­ket. In the first month, about 1,000 units were sold on on­line re­tailer JD.com alone, with sev­eral hun­dred units sold per month after­ward.

An­gle said the floor mop­per is most suc­cess­ful in Asian coun­tries where hard floors are com­mon. Cur­rently, it brings in about 10 per­cent of iRobot’s to­tal rev­enue glob­ally. About 40 per­cent of sales in China is con­trib­uted by wet floor care prod­ucts.

“We’re ex­cited by our suc­cess in build­ing robots fo­cused on a par­tic­u­lar ge­og­ra­phy, so it’s cer­tainly some­thing that we think about as we plan our next prod­ucts,” said An­gle.

As a com­pany that in­tro­duces in­no­va­tive new fea­tures and prod­ucts, iRobot es­ti­mates it will pump in up to $100 mil­lion in re­search and de­vel­op­ment this year.

“We see the mar­ket for vac­u­um­ing robots grow­ing very rapidly. We’ ll con­tinue to in­vest in build­ing our pres­ence in China. We think there will be op­por­tu­ni­ties for re­search and de­vel­op­ment in China. It’s a coun­try that has tremen­dous tal­ent and in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port the ro­bot in­dus­try,” said An­gle.

Dur­ing his lat­est trip to China, An­gle launched iRobot’s con­nected prod­ucts, mark­ing the com­pany’s leap for­ward into the smart home seg­ment.

“No com­pany can build ev­ery­thing for the home. So it’s my vi­sion that there should be an ecosys­tem of prod­ucts and an op­por­tu­nity for com­pa­nies to work to­gether to cre­ate a ben­e­fit to the con­sumer, so the home can do a more com­plete job of tak­ing care of it­self,” said An­gle, adding that iRobot will search for com­pa­nies to work with in com­ing years.

Ac­cord­ing to him, iRobot’s long-term vi­sion is to build an ecosys­tem of robots and data to en­able the smart home. This smart home will be based on a wide range of con­nected and co­or­di­nated robots, sen­sors and de­vices that will seam­lessly re­spond to the needs of daily liv­ing.

Al­though its China head of­fice opened in Shang­hai in Septem­ber last year, iRobot started its busi­ness in the coun­try as early as late 1990s by work­ing with US toy man­u­fac­turer Has­bro in Guangzhou to build ro­bot toys.

De­spite iRobot’s 27 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in build­ing robots, An­gle said the in­dus­try is still young, and the con­sumer ro­bot seg­ment nascent.

“The op­por­tu­nity to have robots work­ing to­gether is much larger than just vac­u­um­ing and mop­ping robots. There could be other robots and other prod­ucts in the home that can take ad­van­tage (of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies). The chal­lenge in mak­ing the home truly smart is the com­plex­ity,” said An­gle.

Ac­cord­ing to him, a truly smart home will one day have hun­dreds of con­nected de­vices in it: light bulbs, ther­mostats, tele­vi­sion, ra­dio, heat­ing sys­tem, mu­sic sys­tem, air con­di­tioner, re­frig­er­a­tor, so on. The smart home needs to un­der­stand it­self and do the right thing au­to­mat­i­cally.

“So over the next five years, the ro­bot will help the house un­der­stand where things are, so that if you walk into a room, the room will do the right thing. The lights will turn on, the heat will turn on, the tele­vi­sion might turn on if you typ­i­cally watch tele­vi­sion at that hour in that room,” he said.

An­gle re­gards China and the United States the two world lead­ers in ser­vice robots, and he ex­pects that to con­tinue, es­pe­cially as the Made in China 2025 ini­tia­tive will help com­pa­nies in China to suc­ceed.

“The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment is do­ing a very smart thing and mak­ing robotics a pri­or­ity for the coun­try. The goal of the (Made in China 2025) plan is to in­crease tech­nol­ogy in man­u­fac­tur­ing to al­low fac­to­ries to work smarter and more ef­fi­ciently,” An­gle said.

“Ser­vice ro­bot is a small in­dus­try to­day, but is quickly grow­ing into a more im­por­tant in­dus­try, al­though it will be many years be­fore it is as large as the man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try. But it’s im­por­tant, given that China has some very good ad­van­tages and good in­fra­struc­ture in the ro­bot in­dus­try, that it fo­cuses on con­tin­u­ing to be an im­por­tant and ma­jor player in ser­vice robots,” he said.

China is ex­pected to be the largest mar­ket for ro­bot vacu­ums.”

Colin An­gle, chair­man, CEO and founder of iRobot

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