Robots at cen­ter of China’s strat­egy to leapfrog ri­vals

Malta Independent - - BUSINESS -

The Can­bot can say its name, re­spond to voice com­mands, and “dance” as it plays Michael Jack­son’s “Bil­lie Jean.” Other robots China is dis­play­ing at the World Robot Con­fer­ence can play bad­minton, sand cell phone cases and sort com­puter chips.

China is show­cas­ing its bur­geon­ing robot in­dus­try at the five-day ex­hi­bi­tion in Bei­jing, part of a na­tional ef­fort to pro­mote use of more ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies in Chi­nese fac­to­ries and cre­ate high­end prod­ucts that re­de­fine the mean­ing of “Made in China.” Apart from the cool fac­tor, China’s sweep­ing plans to up­grade its fac­to­ries and pro­duc­tion lines de­pend on build­ing and bet­ter us­ing ad­vanced robots. Au­toma­tion is cru­cial for in­dus­tries fac­ing ris­ing labor costs and slow­ing growth in the work force thanks to the “one-child” pol­icy era and ag­ing of the pop­u­la­tion.

China will have to make big strides to leap ahead of Ger­many, Ja­pan and other na­tions whose robots are gen­er­a­tions ahead.

In­fini­ties In­ter­na­tional Group, based in eastern China’s Shan­dong, ad­ver­tises its Can­bot UPart­ner as a ser­vice robot that could be pro­grammed to run in shop­ping malls, restau­rants and banks. But it’s mod­eled on the “Pep­per” robot made by Ja­pan’s SoftBank.

Nearby, Peng Zhi­hui and Luo Binyi stood with “Ares,” a hu­man-sized robot they de­signed with ex­posed me­tal arms and hands and a wide range of uses in mind, from the mil­i­tary to per­form­ing ba­sic tasks in a home.

Peng and Luo, both 24, de­vel­oped the man­nequin-like Ares while at­tend­ing col­lege in south­west­ern China’s Sichuan prov­ince. A Shang­hai in­vest­ment com­pany pitched in some fund­ing.

“Many robots aren’t very use­ful right now, but will show their true value when they are used in homes in the fu­ture,” Peng said.

Thou­sands of fac­to­ries in south­ern China’s in­dus­trial cen­ters which long were manned by low­cost mi­grant work­ers, are now turn­ing to robots. China has be­come the world’s top con­sumer of in­dus­trial robots and will soon have the most com­mer­cial robots in op­er­a­tion of any coun­try. Fox­conn, the Tai­wanese firm that as­sem­bles Ap­ple’s iPhones in China, has in­stalled 40,000 robots in its fac­to­ries.

China made ro­bot­ics a fo­cal point of its re­cent “Made in China 2025” plan, and has set na­tional goals of pro­duc­ing 100,000 in­dus­trial robots a year and hav­ing 150 robots in op­er­a­tion for ev­ery 10,000 em­ploy­ees by 2020, a fig­ure known as robot den­sity. Cur­rently, China ranks 28th in the world for robot den­sity, be­hind Por­tu­gal and In­done­sia. Chi­nese sup­pli­ers sold about 20,000 robots last year to lo­cal com­pa­nies.

“There has never been such a dy­namic rise in such a short pe­riod of time in any other mar­ket,” the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Ro­bot­ics said in an anal­y­sis of China’s robot in­dus­try pub­lished ear­lier this year.

Steve Wy­att, head of sales and mar­ket­ing for Switzer­land-based ABB Ro­bot­ics, said his com­pany em­ploys more than 1,600 peo­ple in China and has seen its sales in China grow by a fac­tor of 50.

But the coun­try re­mains be­hind in terms of the com­plex­ity of tasks Chi­nese-made robots can han­dle, Wy­att said.

Chi­nese ap­pli­ance maker Midea Group re­cently an­nounced it was pur­chas­ing al­most all of Ger­man in­dus­trial robot man­u­fac­turer Kuka.

Wing Chu, a se­nior econ­o­mist at the Hong Kong Trade De­vel­op­ment Coun­cil, said China will con­tinue to seek for­eign ex­per­tise to ad­vance in ro­bot­ics as part of a broader ef­fort to trans­form its econ­omy.

“In the longer term, China wants to up­grade all its in­dus­tries,” he said.

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