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Robots getting serious in China

2014-08-11 09:30 China Daily Web Editor: Qin Dexing
A Comau robot is on display at the China International Robot Show last month in Shanghai. [Photo/China Daily]

A Comau robot is on display at the China International Robot Show last month in Shanghai. [Photo/China Daily]

Many visitors at the recent China International Robot Show in Shanghai were captivated by the machines that could pour water, pick up candy or play chess.

But Stefan Sack was looking at something else entirely. "See this robot? It shakes when it stops moving," he says, pointing out a sign of poor quality.

"This one has a sensor. If you stand here, it would stop. But if it is not sensitive enough and doesn't stop, it will hurt people," Sack says, pointing out the possible consequences of a robot not being up to snuff.

Sack was standing inside a booth in an area where Chinese companies were located at the show. As CEO of Comau (Shanghai) Engineering Co Ltd, he is eager to learn the latest innovations and trends in the Chinese robot market.

There is a good reason for that. Sack's company, a branch of Comau Group of Italy, which is a subsidiary of Italy-based Fiat Group Automobiles, is moving its robot production from Italy to China this year.

"We have a series of projects moving production capabilities from Italy to China because we want to be close to customers," Sack says. "The growth in China is much bigger than the growth in other countries."

Within five years, the majority of its robot production will be transferred from Turin, Italy, to a plant in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, about an hour's drive from Shanghai.

"We will expand the current plant and set up local R&D support. The investment is 2-3 million euros ($2.7 million-$4 million) to start with, and we will continue with similar numbers each year," he says.

China, with sales of about 37,000 industrial robots last year, has surpassed Japan to become the world's biggest buyer for the first time. It is also the fastest-growing market worldwide, with total supply of industrial robots increasing by an average of 36 percent annually for the past five years, says Li Xiaojia at China Robot Industry Alliance's statistics department.

In the next 10 years, China's annual growth in robots is forecast to be about 40 percent per year, industry officials say.

Comau has more than 30 years of experience in making and applying robots.

The company has been making and selling advanced manufacturing systems worldwide for about 40 years. It offers customized service and support at 24 locations in 13 countries.

It came to China in 1997 and set up Comau (Shanghai) Engineering in 2001 to enter the automotive industries with its engineering and systems business. In 2011, it set up another company in Kunshan, and it has a branch in Dalian and two sales offices in Shenzhen and Chongqing.

But it was not until two things happened in the past few years-rising labor costs and China's stated desire to move its manufacturing to the next level-that the robotics industry took off, Sack says.

The company took the plunge, setting up Kekun (Kunshan) Automation, a manufacturing company mainly dedicated to robotics, to serve Comau's markets in China and around the globe. The factory, of some 20,000 square meters, can produce 9,000 robots a year.

Sack says only about 10 percent of Comau's current business in China is robotics, but its growth has been much quicker than that of other sectors. Last year, robotics sales exceeded 100 million yuan ($16 million).

"The biggest advantage of China is that Chinese are very keen on technological innovation, much keener than Europeans, so they are more willing to try something new," he says. "Last year, basically we tripled our sales, and we think a 30 to 40 percent growth rate is realistic every year."

Wang Guochao, general manager of Comau (Shanghai) Engineering, says more than 70 percent of the robots Comau has sold are used in the automobile industry. The company has been working mainly on producing robots for car companies such as SAIC, Geely, GAC FIAT, Chery and FAW.

However, there is increasing potential for robotics in general industries, which are speeding up automation. Comau has begun to put more emphasis on machines for applications such as food production and electronics manufacturing.

The company has already been asked by some small and mediumsized companies to make robots to their specific needs.

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