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Science & Technology

Robotics Industry Struggling Amid Global Uncertainty

The world’s largest robotics conference is underway in Beijing, showcasing the latest in construction, entertainment, education and medical automation.

But recent US-China trade tensions and an uncertain economic landscape, both at home and abroad, have seen industry's profits dwindle.

This robot can thread a needle with near-millimeter accuracy, others can paint calligraphy and build automobiles.

Accuracy is certainly needed when conducting brain surgery.

Remebot’s medical droid can conduct deep brain stimulation, take biopsies of brain tumors and implant electrodes - all following remote instructions from doctors.

The World Robot Conference in Beijing includes this large automotive assembly line with automated arms pivoting and swooping to carry a section of car chassis.

But all is not well in the world's largest market for industrial robots.

Manufacturers and engineers from Chinese and global firms say a slow global economy, the US-China trade war, and unclear government policies has led to a downturn in profits for robotics industry.

“The decline of the automotive industry is affected by the overall economic development, there is a cycle in economic development,” explains Zeng Konggeng, the chief engineer at Yaskawa Shougang Robot corporation.

China’s meteoric economic rise was built on cheap labor making cheap products which are then sold around the world.

Beijing is investing heavily in the robotics industry in order to change China's industrial base from cheap labor to high-tech robots for the automobile, service and entertainment sectors.

That industrial strategy has outpaced reality on the ground, with supply overpowering demand, leading to less profit for robot makers.

It was also part of the spark that lit the US-China trade war.

The United States Trade Representative included robotics in Washington's initial tariffs.

Those tariffs led many major customers for Shanghai-based robotics firm JAKA to relocate to Southeast Asia, says chief technology officer Xu Xiong.

Xu says JAKA moved production overseas to follow their major clients, who setup shop in Southeast Asia to avoid tariffs.

"They went to Southeast Asia to build factories and we just follow them," Xu says.

In a further sign of the party's support for the industry, China's central bank in February encouraged domestic banks to lend more to robotics corporations.

China produced 131,000 robots in 2017 and then 147,700 in 2018, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics.

According to consultancy firm Oxford Economics, the world's robot population will hit 20 million by 2030.

Three-quarters - or 14 million - of those robots will be in China and will lead to mass layoffs of human workers at healthcare facilities, factories and farms, says Oxford Economics.

A June report by the group claims three trends have led to the surge: the rising cost in human labor is making robots more affordable, robots are becoming better and consumer demands for manufactured goods are growing among the world's middle class.

The spectacular growth in China's robotics has been led by the Chinese Communist Party, which has placed political weight behind the industry.

Despite heavy support from authorities, China's industrial robot production fell 8.5 percent in 2018, according to ING economic firm ING.

The rush to next-generation 5G connectivity around the world wasn't on display at this conference.

Li Bin, sales manager for Airtac Intelligent Equipment, says the technology isn't clearly defined yet.

That means companies like his are yet to invest in the research and development to utilize the ultra-fast wireless network.

"There is no specific direction this year," he says.

"Therefore, many companies have no investment in this area and the machinery and equipment are relatively small, so the amount of our industry is also affected."

Despite the current slump, the Chinese Robot Industry Alliance in an online statement said that a slowdown in automotive sales and manufacturing in China shouldn't do long-term damage to the sector.

The industry group said that government support, rising human labor costs, domestic sales and growth in robotics outside the automotive industry would drive Chinese robot manufacturers business past its current hurdles.

Beijing's World Robot Conference runs till 25 August. 

Science & Technology

Robotics Industry Struggling Amid Global Uncertainty

China’s meteoric economic rise was built on cheap labor making cheap products which are then sold around the world.

Thumbnail

The world’s largest robotics conference is underway in Beijing, showcasing the latest in construction, entertainment, education and medical automation.

But recent US-China trade tensions and an uncertain economic landscape, both at home and abroad, have seen industry's profits dwindle.

This robot can thread a needle with near-millimeter accuracy, others can paint calligraphy and build automobiles.

Accuracy is certainly needed when conducting brain surgery.

Remebot’s medical droid can conduct deep brain stimulation, take biopsies of brain tumors and implant electrodes - all following remote instructions from doctors.

The World Robot Conference in Beijing includes this large automotive assembly line with automated arms pivoting and swooping to carry a section of car chassis.

But all is not well in the world's largest market for industrial robots.

Manufacturers and engineers from Chinese and global firms say a slow global economy, the US-China trade war, and unclear government policies has led to a downturn in profits for robotics industry.

“The decline of the automotive industry is affected by the overall economic development, there is a cycle in economic development,” explains Zeng Konggeng, the chief engineer at Yaskawa Shougang Robot corporation.

China’s meteoric economic rise was built on cheap labor making cheap products which are then sold around the world.

Beijing is investing heavily in the robotics industry in order to change China's industrial base from cheap labor to high-tech robots for the automobile, service and entertainment sectors.

That industrial strategy has outpaced reality on the ground, with supply overpowering demand, leading to less profit for robot makers.

It was also part of the spark that lit the US-China trade war.

The United States Trade Representative included robotics in Washington's initial tariffs.

Those tariffs led many major customers for Shanghai-based robotics firm JAKA to relocate to Southeast Asia, says chief technology officer Xu Xiong.

Xu says JAKA moved production overseas to follow their major clients, who setup shop in Southeast Asia to avoid tariffs.

"They went to Southeast Asia to build factories and we just follow them," Xu says.

In a further sign of the party's support for the industry, China's central bank in February encouraged domestic banks to lend more to robotics corporations.

China produced 131,000 robots in 2017 and then 147,700 in 2018, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics.

According to consultancy firm Oxford Economics, the world's robot population will hit 20 million by 2030.

Three-quarters - or 14 million - of those robots will be in China and will lead to mass layoffs of human workers at healthcare facilities, factories and farms, says Oxford Economics.

A June report by the group claims three trends have led to the surge: the rising cost in human labor is making robots more affordable, robots are becoming better and consumer demands for manufactured goods are growing among the world's middle class.

The spectacular growth in China's robotics has been led by the Chinese Communist Party, which has placed political weight behind the industry.

Despite heavy support from authorities, China's industrial robot production fell 8.5 percent in 2018, according to ING economic firm ING.

The rush to next-generation 5G connectivity around the world wasn't on display at this conference.

Li Bin, sales manager for Airtac Intelligent Equipment, says the technology isn't clearly defined yet.

That means companies like his are yet to invest in the research and development to utilize the ultra-fast wireless network.

"There is no specific direction this year," he says.

"Therefore, many companies have no investment in this area and the machinery and equipment are relatively small, so the amount of our industry is also affected."

Despite the current slump, the Chinese Robot Industry Alliance in an online statement said that a slowdown in automotive sales and manufacturing in China shouldn't do long-term damage to the sector.

The industry group said that government support, rising human labor costs, domestic sales and growth in robotics outside the automotive industry would drive Chinese robot manufacturers business past its current hurdles.

Beijing's World Robot Conference runs till 25 August. 

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