Chinese robot wars set to erupt

Updated: 2012-12-06 09:26

By He Wei (China Daily)

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Employment fears

However, there are fears that the robot boom could result in a rise in unemployment. Li Gang, vice-president of ABB's robotics sector in China, said robots are complimentary to the human workforce, because they are mostly deployed in regions with where labor is in short supply. In addition, some of the robots are specifically designed to work in dangerous or special environments where conditions could pose a risk to human health.

Despite the thriving prospects, China's robot manufacturing capacity is still below those in competitor countries, according to the experts.

The country still relies heavily on imported robots. In 2011, they increased by 62 percent year-on-year to 38,000, with the top foreign companies accounting for 80 percent of the local market, according to the IFR.

Moreover, China still ranks low in the global robotic hierarchy. There are 21 robots for every 10,000 workers, according to IFR data. The figure is less than half the global average of 55, and far lags behind the 135 in the United States, Germany's 251 and Japan's 339.

In terms of patents, Japan holds all the top spots for robot control, sensor and actuator technologies, said Zhao Jie, executive vice-director of the State Key Lab of Robotics and System at Harbin Institute of Technology. China, in contrast, has barely made any progress.

Despite more than a decade of research, domestic companies are still failing to reach international standards in critical robot techniques, according to Sun.

"Regarding the five key robot components - motors, bearings, reducers, casting and software development - China still lags far behind developed economies and has to rely on imported units," he said.

For instance, the repeat accuracy of a foreign manipulator, the measurement of the variation in the actual position of a robot manipulator from one cycle to the next, can be as little as 0.03 millimeter, he noted. The number for a similar Chinese robot, in contrast, is 1 mm.

The industry needs to make a concerted effort to integrate and make better use of resources in developing key technologies, said Zhao Jie.

At least 30 universities and research institutes in China have embarked on robot technologies and about 60 companies are manufacturing robots.

Zhao urged the central government to establish a top-down strategy by appointing certain academies and enterprises to handle a designated task and make breakthroughs in specific areas. In that way, people would be more likely to share resources.

"If each company has its own agenda, they tend to safeguard their own resources instead of sharing them," said Zhao.

Zhu from Zhejiang University urged the government to establish an independent and unified Robotics Academy at the national level, because at present robotics alliances are spread across various machinery federations, leading to inefficiency.

However, until those and other problems are addressed, China will continue to be a bit-part player in robot manufacturing. After years of operations, foreign operators have achieved successful economies of scale, which greatly trim production costs. That has made it difficult for domestic players to gain a competitive edge in pricing, according to Zhou.

Sun from Risong admitted that he would rather pay 280,000 yuan for a robot from Kuka or ABB than spend perhaps 250,000 on one made by a Chinese company. "The price difference is not as significant as the gap in technologies. If you pay 30,000 yuan extra, you get to acquire technologies that are 30 years ahead. It's an easy choice to make."

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