Taiwan pins hopes on robotic friends

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 July, 2011, 12:00am


Cheng Hsiang-ju limits her son to three sessions per week with Robii, which has become something of a brother to the Taipei child. The pint-sized, monkey-lookalike toy that comes with a stage and an interactive projector, holds the five-year-old's attention as it talks, responds to touch, plays music and teaches him to write.

Cheng spent around NT$20,000 (HK$5,400) for the device in January and encouraged her colleagues to do the same.

'Little boys normally like machines and it has been helpful, he is learning letters and the English alphabet,' Cheng said.

Taiwan's hi-tech companies are looking to consumers such as Cheng to power up the island's old, but small robotics industry. The island aims to fuse government support with cost-cutting measures to hold robot prices down for average consumers.

Today, the US$413 million per-year sector in Taiwan accounts for 2.3 per cent of the world's US$17.6 billion total spending on robots, most of which is generated by industrial- purpose robots from Japan, South Korea and the US. An estimated one million robots are in use.

Taiwanese firms such as Asustek Computer, BenQ, Hon Hai and Micro-Star International are all developing robots, according to the economic ministry's Industrial Development Bureau. Some have made them for 20 years, often under contract for overseas companies.

Robots made by Taiwanese companies do a range of tasks from housework to reading Buddhist scriptures to lonely old people. Others dance, sing and teach children under 10, an age group that the bureau says started to expand rapidly five years ago and which it calls a key to the industry's long-term success.

After about 30 years building PCs, televisions and consumer electronics for overseas firms, Taiwan is well positioned technologically to build robots. The chips and components used in many electronic devices often overlap with those required for robots. Hi-tech industry leads the island's export-driven economy today, producing 12.5 per cent of gross domestic product.

'Robots and integrated chip technology are closely co-ordinated,' said Chen Wen-chen, deputy secretary general of the 101-member Robotics Association Taiwan. 'Our quality is higher and manufacturing capacity is strong, but costs can be controlled.'

Taiwanese firms can save money by buying local components, so reducing shipping costs, and hiring inexpensive, but well-trained, engineers. Prices could fall to NT$10,000 per robot, which the economics ministry says world consumers would accept.

Taiwan's government had invested in robotics research for about five years, Chen said, adding that it gave NT$300 million to NT$400 million per year to universities and small firms.

Government investment could be a key boost, said Steve Yi, chief strategy officer with the marketing firm Grey Group Korea. Then larger firms backed by income from other product lines would take a chance and, if they were successful, other companies would follow.

Taiwanese firms could later claim another advantage by targeting mainland Chinese consumers, Chen said. Those consumers would recognise local brands and understand robots speaking in the common language, Mandarin Chinese.

Robii's designer, Compal Communication, wanted to lower its price to NT$16,900 and start selling it in the mainland, where there were a vast number of children without siblings who might need a playmate, said K.T. Huang, the company associate director of new business development. 'We hope later we can customise the robots,' Huang said. 'For example, if you called out 'Robii' it would know your voice.'

Taking a different approach, in April Taiwan's Micro-Star started selling vacuum cleaner robots in places as diverse as Norway and Japan at prices between US$129 and US$149. Sales had been encouraging so far, said company robotics team sales director Albert Uy, though he did not offer specific figures. Two more lines of robots were due out by the end of the year, and the research and development budget would go up next year.

Taiwan made the world's cheapest robots, except for countries that ignored intellectual property rights, Uy said, because the components were local and the engineers were mature. 'If you look at PCs right now, it's nothing new to make some different product lines,' he said. 'We have the research and development teams, so we decided to do robots.'

Neither Compal nor Micro-Star would say how many robots they sold, and the robotics association did not keep industry-wide statistics.

Japan leads Taiwan in the production of robots that rescue people, work as hostesses or even imitate dogs. A total of 350,000 Japanese industrial robots are in operation around the world, three times more than those produced by any other country, the Japan External Trade Organisation said.

South Korean officials are pushing service robots, for jobs such as selling movie tickets, as its giant electronics firms all pursue production of their own tools. Industries in both countries, as well as Taiwan, had also seen more contract orders during the past 10 years from designers in Europe and the US, said Wai Ho Leong, regional economist with Barclays Capital in Singapore.

He described the work flow as 'a shift in investment and a transfer of technology'.

But because consumers were unwilling to pay the high unit prices, Japan and South Korea had struggled to popularise robots the same way they had PCs and other electronic products, Yi said.

'Companies may buy batches of robots for repetitive jobs, but even corporate users find it cheaper to hire low-wage personnel,' he said. 'To use robots in mass applications has issues. You can still go to places like India to get smart people for the same prices.'


The number of industrialised robots the Japanese government estimates that it will produce by 2025