Is robot industry experiencing a cold winter?

By Yuan Fang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, August 23, 2019
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A robot on display at the World Robot Exhibition 2019 on Aug. 20, 2019. [Photo by Yuan Fang/]

The global robot industry witnessed a turning point last year as sales growth of industrial robots slowed down to only 1% from 29% in 2017. 

The case in China was even worse. 

The country has been the world's largest market for industrial robots for seven straight years, but it only sold 135,000 units in 2018, representing a year-on-year growth of -3.75%, compared to 60% in 2017. 

Many wonder if this signals a cold winter for the robot industry. 

Qu Daokui, president of Siasun Robot & Automation Co Ltd, a leading robot enterprise in China, brought up the question when attending a forum at the ongoing World Robot Conference. And his answer was no. 

Qu attributed last year's bleak figure in China to the recession in the auto industry and the sluggish growth in the 3C industry. 

The auto industry, for example, has been a traditional market of robots in China for years, but it consumed only 33% of the robots sold in China last year, down from 45% in 2017 and 50% in previous years. 

The global performance was mainly affected by the Chinese market, which accounted for over 30% of the global market in 2017, in Qu's opinion. 

However, Qu was optimistic about the prospects of the robot industry, despite the poor performance in 2018. 

Technological breakthroughs and integration have presented huge opportunities for the robot industry, Qu said. 

"Traditionally, robots consist of mechanical and electronic equipment, but now they are high-tech products involving AI, information electronics, big data networks and sensing technologies. This kind of technological breakthrough and integration has given robots a crucial quality -- 'the ability to grow.' Because of this quality, industrial robots have undergone radical changes, and more importantly, the use of robots has been constantly expanding to other areas including medical care, national defense, services and consumption. This is the hope and space for the industry's real development in the future," Qu explained. 

Besides, intelligent manufacturing and the change in production factors toward the use of robots are also presenting opportunities for the industry, Qu said. 

Qu described the current period for Chinese robot enterprises as a period of reshuffling and rebirth and a period of transition from savage growth to rational growth, believing that last year's bleak sales were only a small turning point and a real spring is coming. 

Qu's confidence was shared by Xin Guobin, vice minister of industry and information technology, and Karel Eloot, who co-leads McKinsey's Operations Practice and Internet of Things (IoT) group in Asia, when they spoke on the same occasion. 

Although sales growth slowed down noticeably in 2018, from double-digit to single-digit, the robot industry still has broad prospects in the long run as it carries the common wish of humanity for a better life and is an urgent need for economic and social development, Xin said. 

Eloot noted that although sales of industrial robots slowed down, the robot family has been constantly expanding with new members coming in, including collaborative robots, and scenarios for robot applications are increasing worldwide, believing last year's slowdown is not a big deal and the overall trend is strong. 

The World Robot Conference opened on Aug. 20 and will last through Aug. 25.

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