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Chinese robot makers rely on imported components


07-07-2016 00:24 BJT

The China International Robot Show opened today in Shanghai and will feature three days of exhibits spotlighting the latest technology from robot manufacturers around the world. China is a newcomer to the field and faces concerns that its robotics sector relies too much on imports. Mi Jiayi talked to some humans at the robot show to see how things are going.

More than 300 companies are at this year's show, and organizers estimate it will draw some 80,000 visitors. In addition to the dragon dance, the robots here can provide other kinds of entertainment, and also perform industrial and educational tasks. Chinese robot makers are not leading in the Chinese robot market, however. China now has several thousand companies making robots, but those companies only have ten percent of the country's market share. The key components for a robot take up 70 percent of its cost, but 80 percent of those components are imported. Only a dozen Chinese makers of industrial robots have developed core technologies by themselves. 

"In terms of R&D, China in fact has many universities and research organizations working on that. But the academic research and industrial needs don't always fit with each other. So the next step is to make the R&D results more applicable. We have a lot of resources in China, but they are all run by different organizations, that's the reason for the current lack of coordination," said Xu Fang, research director Shenyang SIASUN Robot & Automation.

"China is still at a very young age at in terms of making high-tech robots. Many companies have only been in the business for four or five years. But some international players told us they think China's technologies and innovation are beginning to catch up," said Mi Jiayi Shanghai.

In fact, some Chinese companies are trying to buy as much as advanced robotics technology from abroad as they can. China's Midea, for example, has just purchased an additional 25 percent of German robot maker Kuka, bringing its total ownership to nearly 43 percent of the world-class robotics firm. 

"We see a lot of interesting tech coming now in China. //I think in the beginning they are looking at the very big four or five companies, trying to follow them, but now we see some of the first innovations coming also from the Chinese companies, and we all welcome it. If they can help the robot industry in total, in order for all robot manufacturers to utilize them and sell more robots," said Stefan Lampa, chairman KUKA Roboter GmbH.

Chinese companies which do possess key technologies, however, are doing quite well. Xin Sun went public six years ago and now sells five different types of robots which it has designed in-house. The company's example does not seem to be taking on in the industry, however. One industry expert says that many local companies still prefer to just import parts and assemble them here in China. 

"For single companies, importing and assembling will save money in the short term, because if they have to do the R&D from scratch, it will take a lot of time, and the company could miss good opportunities in the meantime. Also, innovations are very risky, a lot of companies have failed during the innovation process. So what's the most important thing is that we have to have a system that encourages innovation, and that will enable innovative companies to take advantage of market competition, and prevent companies that don't innovate from stealing from the good companies," said Kou Zonglai, professor school of economics, Fudan University.

While it is estimated that China will be the world's biggest market for smart robotics consumption in the future, that innovation is being actively pursued in other countries. The United States says it will invest 2.8 billion US dollars in making new-gen smart robots. The EU is planning to put another 900 million dollars into its robot industries via a project called Horizon 2020.

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