TECHNOLOGY

China’s robot sector needs to pick up pace to upgrade manufacturing and rival foreign competitors, say experts

China has high hopes for robotics to transform manufacturing, but the industry still falls far behind its foreign competitors, experts say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 November, 2015, 12:11am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 November, 2015, 5:12am

China’s robot industry is not yet mature enough to contribute to upgrading the country’s manufacturing sector, industry insiders and foreign players say.

There are more than 1,000 robot-related firms across China, but quality – not quantity – is the robot sector’s biggest challenge, according to Qu Daokui, chairman of Siasun Robot and Automation, a Shenyang-based industrial robot producer.

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China plans to boost the development of robotic tools within the next five years as it moves to transform its manufacturing industry with high-end technology and automated production.

But its robot sector “lacks core technology” and was generally stuck at “low-end application in a high-end industry, and under pressure of being marginalised in Western-dominated markets”, Qu told the ongoing World Robot Conference in Beijing on Tuesday.

The mainland sold 56,000 units of robots last year, accounting for a quarter of global sales, Qu said. But the number of robots made for every 10,000 manufacturing worker was just 30, much lower than South Korea’s 437 and Germany’s 282, he said. The robot sector was also far from meeting the Ministry of Industrial and Information Technology’s target to develop the know-how of manufacturing industrial robots’ key parts.

“Key parts of industrial robots, such as sensors and motors, are still reliant on imports, and not many robot makers are ready for mass production,” said a general manager with a government-backed technology firm in Sanming, Fujian province.

The manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, blamed local governments and enterprises for their fickle strategies that prevented firms from fully learning how to manufacture industrial robots’ key parts.

His company was studying investment opportunities in the booming robot sector, but found most firms performing below expectations, he said.

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Leading Germany-based industrial robot supplier Kuka Robotics said its Chinese peers were still finding their feet in the industry and were not yet able to challenge their foreign competitors.

Qu said the government’s help was necessary to boost China’s leading robot companies to enable them to compete in global markets.

“The government needs to develop and support platforms for research and tests, and set standards for its robot industry,” the Siasun chairman said.

Cai Hongping, founder of private equity firm AGIC Group, warned that the present pace of development did not bode well for China’s plans to upgrade manufacturing.

The mainland’s outdated robots could not serve high-tech production while 3D printing had yet to be industrialised, Cai said last month. “We had better … not always be followers.”