It's a bird! It's a plane! No! It's a Robin
Updated: 2012-05-04 11:35
By Zhang Haizhou (China Daily European Weekly)
Company hopes to score big with first Chinese-made electric personal transporter
Robin M1 electric personal transporters. [Provided to China Daily]
Traveling between different halls and pavilions at the Hannover Messe technology trade show is a major challenge for virtually everyone, including exhibitors, businessmen and journalists.
The 466,000 square meters of covered indoor space, 58,000 sq m of open-air space, 26 halls and pavilions, gives you an idea of just how big the home base of the Messe is. It's the biggest exhibition center in the world.
But the distances really did not matter for people like Jack Zhang, as he had Robin M1, a Segway-like electric personal transporter.
"No! It's not Segway. It's Robin M1, made in China," the 27-year-old Zhang said during this year's Hannover Messe from April 23 to 27.
Designed and produced by Robstep Co Ltd, a high-tech company based in Dongguan in Guangdong province in South China, Robin M1 is arguably the first electric personal transporter made in China.
It made its Western Europe debut after Zhang, Robstep's overseas marketing director, decided to showcase it at the Messe.
A potential Spanish agent tries a Robin M1 at the Hannover Messe technology trade show, held from April 23 to 27. [Provided to China Daily]
The transporter was launched during the China Import and Export Fair in April in Guangdong, and so far about 3,500 Robin M1s have been sold abroad, mainly in countries in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, Zhang says.
"I just brought a few samples to the fair in Guangdong and many people mistakenly thought it was a Segway when they saw it for the first time. I needed to correct them time and time again," Zhang recalls.
Though both the transporters are two-wheeled and self-balancing, Zhang says Robin M1 is not a copy of Segway, which was invented, designed and manufactured in the United States.
Apart from the clear difference in the size of the wheels - the Segway's are a lot bigger - the Robin M1, priced at $2,000 (1,500 euros), is much cheaper.
Even the cheapest new Segway costs more than $5,000, Zhang says, adding the lower prices are due to the lower labor costs in China.
The other major differences between the two models are in the key parts.
"The engines of Robin M1 are from Taiwan, while the software, which is the most important part, has been developed by ourselves," he says, referring to Robstep's six founding members, college mates at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST), based in Wuhan in Central China's Hubei province.
But Zhang admits the idea of making Robin M1 came from Segway.
It was a day not long after the team of six, all of whom were born between 1984 and 1986, entered university in 2004 that they saw Segway for the first time on TV, he recalls.
"We thought it was cool. We were very curious about it, and curiosity turned into our motivation to design our own transporter, which also became our master's project," Zhang says.
The project, formally commenced in 2009, was an "arduous" one with quite a few failures.
"All the team members suffered some injuries after falling off the transporter during the R&D process, as earlier trial versions weren't quite stable. Some people had their teeth knocked out while I fractured my wrist once," Zhang says.
Before the current version hit the market, Zhang and his team scrapped two earlier versions due to mechanical problems and the design of the vehicle.
Apart from these technical problems, raising the funds for the project was an even bigger hurdle.
When the project began, Zhang says their first concern was whether there would be any mass market for their products.
"We thought there would be a good market, as Segway is far too expensive," he says.
But the real challenge was to find solid sponsors for the high-tech endeavor.
Recalling the process at the HUST, Zhang says they were all "poor students who had days of free time to do research in the dormitories, but no money".
Luckily, they managed to find in Dongguan a die shop owner who invested 15 million yuan ($2.37 million, 1.80 million euros), the seed capital required to set up Robstep in 2010.
Currently the company employs more than 60 people, including factory workers.
Selling about 3,500 Robin M1s globally in just one year after hitting the market, Zhang says they are looking for even bigger targets.
"Russia is now our largest (overseas) market. I have a detailed sales target for this year and we expect to enter Western Europe this July," he says.
A Spanish agent had traveled to Hannover to find Zhang and signed an agreement to represent Robin M1 in Spain.
Zhang says he has also managed to reach deals with agents from Britain, Turkey and Germany.
"We are achieving our goal in Europe step by step," he says, recalling that he was "really happy" after they first sold one transporter to a Malaysian agent a year ago.
The most impressive deal, though, was in Beijing.
It was a day when Zhang was riding a Robin in central Beijing's Wangfujing area. A Porsche Cayene passed him and Zhang saw someone in the car stick their head out of the window to look at him.
The car then passed him again a few minutes later, stopped, and out stepped a middle-aged man.
"Hey young man, where did you buy this (Robin)? I want one as well," he said. "It took me quite a while to find the right way back. I was just so worried that you'd have gone and I couldn't find you any more."
Zhang says that despite asking for a high price of 20,000 yuan for the model he was riding, "the customer bought it even though I hadn't brought the charger with me".
"He said 'just post me the charger' and left me his address," Zhang recalls, saying he was an "eye catcher" every time he rode the Robin in the streets.
"I was even stopped by police and asked to wear a helmet, as I was riding too fast. Even the police were curious about my Robin."
Though the future of the gadget looks quite promising, Zhang says his real ambition is to challenge Segway's top perch in the US market.
Compared with the US transporter, which has had few upgrades over the past 10 years, Zhang says his company is now thinking of introducing more advanced versions of the Robin M1, without elaborating on how they would do that.
But he also says that they are still waiting for an opportune time to enter the US market, as they don't want to do it in a rush.
"The major challenge is that Segway has already occupied the US market and is now deep in people's hearts. So we'll try other markets and let people know that there is also Robin, a made -in-China transporter," Zhang says. "But beating Segway is our ultimate goal."
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