Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: future trends in the robotics industry

androidA great deal of money will be pouring into China’s robotics industry over the next few years, which will bring both opportunities and risks for foreign investors. In this article Stefan Sack former Vice President of the European Chamber and former Chairman of the Chamber’s Shanghai Chapter, looks at how robotics could help China to overcome its demographic imbalance and says that human-robot collaboration could be the future of manufacturing.

The Spring Festival Gala that was broadcast on 7th February, 2016, featured an amazing performance set against the backdrop of the Guangzhou skyline. The group Alpha1S performed a dance with 540 individuals, which was broadcast to 690 million people. While it doesn’t match the 15,000 performers that took part in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, what made this special was that these perfectly synchronised dancers were not humans, but robots – what a change in just eight years.

Is this China’s future development in microcosm? And what role will robots play in China manufacturing, an industry that was at the centre of its economic rise over the last three decades?

Robot choreography aside, the nation was focussed on robots in November 2015, when Beijing hosted the World Robotics Conference. A congratulatory note sent by President Xi Jinping praised automation as “the bright pearl in the imperial crown of the manufacturing industry”. The breadth of its application in R&D and manufacturing has become an important yardstick by which industry development, standards and technological innovation are now measured. Its inclusion as one of the key industries promoted under the Made in China 2025 plan means that it will be one of the pillar industries tasked with raising China’s economic development to the next level.

And not before time, too! China’s demographic dividend has expired – the number of young workers has been contracting year-on-year since 2010. Factories in Guangdong and Zhejiang that used to welcome floods of migrant workers are now having to fork out for higher wages or put up with empty seats at their conveyor belts. Compounding this issue is the increased requirement for high-quality, precision work. This relies on a workforce that has a level of education commensurate with high-end manufacturing processes.

But not only this: increased awareness of environmental, health and safety issues has forced factory directors, company executives and the government to rethink the future of China’s manufacturing.

Robots can be a solution to a number of these challenges. As opposed to machines, they can be multipurpose. They can also be applied in hazardous environments, work precisely, don’t go on strike, seldom take breaks (routine maintenance aside) and don’t leave the factory during the Chinese Spring Festival.

In recent years, the government has encouraged the development of robots in China as much as new energy vehicles and Internet+, two other areas that have the potential to promote a climate of innovation and high technology, which can lead China away from its status as the world’s workbench.

Policy support

The Made in China 2025 initiative may be seen by some as something of a gamble, but its 10-year horizon underscores just how seriously China views it.

In the document presented by Li Keqiang in May 2015, 10 pillar industries were named, among which the robotics industry was second on the list. The list was topped by the development of next generation information technology and also included new energy vehicles, aerospace, maritime and rail industries.

It is not only Beijing that has provided strong policy support encouraging automation of manufacturing processes, local governments have developed their own incentives, too. Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces have put forward concepts like ‘Robots replace Humans’ and are offering subsidies in the range of 10 to 15 per cent to robot end users. Dongguan City has stated the creation of unmanned factories as a potential goal. One example in the electronics industry is Changying Precision Technology, who reduced their original workforce by 90 per cent, from 650 to 60, by introducing automation lines and robots.

Application areas are expanding

The most widespread use of robotics worldwide is still in the automotive industry, with 100,000 out of 240,000 robots sold in 2014 going either to automotive OEMs or their suppliers. But the range of applications for robotics is expanding, and China could be the driver for global changes: with China now looking at other industries to replace humans with robots this change could happen quickly.

This presents robotics suppliers with some exciting opportunities: alliances between manufacturers with an understanding of goods as varied as shoes, clothes or electronics on the one hand, and a partner that can offer automation on the other could have a brilliant future. Therefore, there is an increasing need for so-called integrators and trained robot specialists in China. Currently this field is neglected, but no doubt its importance will be raised as China edges towards fulfilling its potential for automating its manufacturing industry.

There is even the possibility for potential customers to help themselves and become active integrators for a changing industry, even for their competitors. In 2015, the Chinese home appliance manufacturer Midea announced the formation of a joint venture with the Japanese robotics company Yaskawa, in order to enter the robotics industry. But they didn’t place all their eggs in one basket: with over five per cent of shares, Midea is also KUKA’s fourth largest shareholder.

Major trends: open and easy automation + human-robot collaboration

Chess competitionWhat does the future hold in this industry?

First, plug-and-play robots will be the way forward. Much like the development of electronics in the 80s and 90s, initially only nerdy scientists used new technology. Nowadays, laptops and tablets are so easy to operate that children start using when they are still in kindergarten. We are currently still in the phase where robots are operated by specialists, but this will change.

Many robotics companies are opening this area up to the normal factory worker. For instance, Italian manufacturer Comau has introduced Open Robotics, which uses mapp technology—a modular intuitive programming language—to integrate different operating procedures, in order to reduce costs and facilitate ease of use. Others will no doubt follow.

Another important trend is human-robot collaboration. A robot can be best utilised in cooperation with humans instead of being separated from them. Now, if you enter an automated factory, it is somewhat like entering a mechanical zoo, with the robots the ‘dangerous animals’ kept behind cages. When the ‘cages’ are opened, robots are automatically deactivated as a safety measure to prevent accidental injury. This is changing though, with more robots being developed that are safe for human collaboration. German manufacturer KUKA recently presented models that can support human collaboration without the risk of causing injury. Comau launched their human-cooperative robot AMICO at the China International Industry Fair in 2015. The word ‘amico’ means ‘friend’ in Italian, and much like the Spring Festival dancers, AMICO has a human shape and a friendly face.

As robots increasingly become android by design, it seems to underline the fact that we are heading towards a future that will involve closer relationships between humans and robots.

Humans will soon need to welcome these new ‘colleagues’ in the workshops of China, and indeed throughout the rest of the world. The opportunities that these artificial creatures present are huge and should be used wisely.

Stefan Sack is an expert in the automation industry and former CEO of COMAU China. He is the founder of the consulting company SinEuSyn Ltd, which supports companies lifting synergies by using Chinese and European cultural approaches in the fields of manufacturing and Industry 4.0. Stefan can be contacted at