Chinese robot wars set to erupt

Updated: 2012-12-06 09:26

By He Wei (China Daily)

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An explosive market

In general, robots fall into two categories, industrial and service, according to a definition provided by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), an industry alliance in Frankfurt, Germany.

Industrial robots are used in industrial automation applications, while service robots are usually found in the fields of medicine, inspection and maintenance systems, but they also have personal and domestic uses.

Chinese robot wars set to erupt

A robot makes noodles in a restaurant in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. Chinese businesses are predicting a boom in the use of robots in the country. [Photo by Yang Huafeng / China News Service]

However, the revenue from service robots is meager compared with that of industrial robots. In 2011, the industrial robot market was worth $8.5 billion, while service robots accounted for just $636 million.

The automation boom has flourished since 2010, when Chinese companies rushed to embrace industrial robots for manufacturing and equipment operation, Sun recalled. The new market buoyancy saw new orders piling up and provided a decent return for Risong. As evidence of the trend, in 2011 Foxconn Technology Group, whose factories on the Chinese mainland assemble iPads for Apple Inc, vowed to install as many as 1 million robots over the next three years.

Robots are efficient: They can work 24 hours a day, offer more output in repetitive work, are much more accurate and keep manufacturers away from reliance on human labor, said Zhu Shiqiang, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou.

Globally, 2011 saw robot sales soar 38 percent year-on-year to 166,028 units, by far the highest level recorded for a single year, according to the IFR.

China accounted for a large part of that robust growth, with 22,600 units sold, a rise of 51 percent compared with 2010. The number of industrial robots sold in China annually quadrupled between 2006 and 2011.

China now ranks as the globe's sixth-largest market in terms of robot installation, and the IFR predicts that the country will overtake Japan as the top consumer of industrial robots by 2014, with demand reaching 32,000 units.

Robotic zones

The Chinese government supports the development of robots. The 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) outlined a plan for overall revenue in the intelligent equipment sector to surpass 1 trillion yuan by 2015, a compound growth rate of 25 percent, said Wang Weiming, deputy director of the equipment industry department of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

The ambitious target also includes 30 percent of intelligent equipment with homegrown technologies. It further set out to localize production of robotics and relevant electrical machinery by the end of the plan, Wang said.

Currently, there are at least six major robotics zones nationwide, according to Zhao Yong, chief operating officer of robot-china, an online information provider for the domestic industry.

The zones are largely centered in and around China's key economic bases such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Chengdu.