More than 180,000 visitors thronged the China International Industry Fair (CIIF) as the event, bearing the theme of "intelligence, interconnection,” kicked off at the Shanghai National Convention and Exhibition center in mid-September. Among the star attractions were Chinese-made collaborative robots, or cobots, exhibited alongside robotic counterparts produced outside the country. Both sides were equally popular, but the Chinese cobots were present in greater numbers and were, therefore, the more prominent of the two.
Welcome to the new era of manufacturing at the nexus of technological revolution and industrial transformation, with artificial intelligence and other new-generation technological breakthroughs accelerating the development of robotics and its applications. China was where the robotics industry experienced its highest rate of growth from 2016 to the first half of 2018, with industry unit shipments expanding annually at the phenomenal rate of more than 60%, according to research from IHS Markit | Technology. However, growth decelerated beginning late 2018, the result of a combination of factors including a slowdown in the global economy, stagnation in the automotive industry, and rising trade friction between China and the United States.
Yet opportunities for robots are not in short supply. Traditional industrial robots continue to gradually replace humans in completing monotonous, repetitive, and dangerous work, while cobots are beginning to slowly penetrate various industrial fields, working closely alongside humans on hybrid production lines. With continued improvements being made to increase robotic intelligence, the next stage for robots will be the amalgamation of human and machine, resulting in human-machine hybrid intelligence.
At CIIF, Swiss-Swedish company ABB developed a robotics solution that conforms with Shanghai's most recent household waste management regulations. Backed by networks invested with AI capabilities and by computers and sensors, robots pick up and sort trash the way humans do. ABB’s robotics solution consists of multiple components, including the YuMi dual-arm robot for collecting trash, the IRB 1200 robot for disposing of the collected trash, a visual system, and both artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities. As part of the training, the cloud dashboard displayed images of trash to the YuMi robot, helping it to learn how to identify various types of trash for sorting into four bins. In the actual implementation, the garbage is then transferred to the conveyor belt, where the IRB 1200 robot collects and sends the trash forward for recycling. To identify the trash, the YuMi robot uses digitalized processing instead of comparing pictures to a huge database, resulting in much faster processing speed. In the future, a human employee will remain the decision-maker as a repository of "qualitative" judgment, responsible for supervision and control duties, while the robot or machine will be upgraded from utilizing "quantitative" computational reasoning to "imitation" judgment and decision-making, possessing imitation learning and fault-tolerant abilities.
ABB also showcased at the fair a series of unique innovative digital products, services, and solutions. Focusing on the 3C—Contain, Control, and Correct—model of lean manufacturing, the ABB robots brought many advanced solutions to help customers develop their own mass customization solutions to remain competitive. It demonstrated a "factory of the future" designed to improve the flexibility and efficiency of production lines to produce small batches and multiple product varieties.
The foundation of this customized production is a series of flexible and efficient digital products. During assembly, for example, cobots pick up and position parts with pinpoint accuracy and precision. Meanwhile, the latest digital twinning technology allowed operators to control different production steps and simulate quality checks to further optimize the production process.
For Chinese robot firms, the path to becoming world-leading robot manufacturers is through the cobot market, they believe. In fact, many new Chinese-made cobot models from the country’s leading robotics manufacturers could be seen at this year’s CIIF.
Shipments in 2017 of cobots within the domestic China market amounted to 4,216 units, according to the 2018 collaborative robotics industry development blue book developed by CIIF Associate s. IHS Markit forecasts a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 52% in shipments from 2018 to 2022 of cobots made in China.
Also, at the event, the xMate flexible robot from Chinese industrial robot supplier Rokae, created for flexible operation, was presented for the first time to the public. The cobot adopts a unique 7-axis design, possesses a guiding hand, and is equipped with a high-precision joint torque sensor for very precise force control.
For its part, Shanghai-based JAKA Robot exhibited the new small-sized cobot Jaka Zu 3m. The cobot had no external control cabinet and supported wide-voltage DC input, which made the cobot more flexible, convenient, and safe for multiple applications. Other features included wireless teaching, drag-and-drop, and graphical programming, making the cobot easy to operate and obviating the need for any professional background or experience for the cobot operator.
Universal Robots of Denmark launched a new product, the UR 16e, which the company says is well suited to perform high-load automation tasks, such as heavy material handling, heavy parts handling, and machine tool management, thanks to a 900mm radius, 16kg load, and ±0.05mm repetition accuracy.
From a technical perspective, some Chinese cobots can be said to have reached—or even exceeded—the standard of excellence set by foreign manufacturers for their own cobots in terms of load, load-weight ratio, accuracy, weight, and ease of use. But for safety and reliability, Chinese companies—given the short time they have had with cobots and their application—have not accumulated the same level of data and experience like their Japanese or Western counterparts. As a result, safety certifications, such as the CE mark attesting to a product’s conformity to applicable requirements, is less common in Chinese-manufactured robots, unlike what is standard practice for products made in the West.
Nonetheless, Chinese cobots can claim a singular advantage over their Western cohorts: In the arena of pricing and service, Chinese after-sales and personalized customer relations are widely acknowledged as being superior to equivalent offerings from foreign manufacturers operating in the Chinese market.
For now, the adoption and use of Chinese cobots within China remains restricted, as the machines and their applications are not widely used. Moreover, the industrial sector in China is still evolving from a labor-intensive system to that of simple automation, so opportunities for cobots are few and far between.
One sector that has been utilizing cobots is the service industry, which values the improvement in operational safety provided by the machines. Other sectors where cobots are being deployed include factory field services, scientific research, and education; the use of cobots in medical treatment, logistics, and commercial retail is also rising rapidly. And as the relationship between the automotive industry and co-robots is gradually established, it is believed that the overall growth rate of co-robots will accelerate.
Over the short term, the use of robotics in 3Cmanufacturing, automotive, and education will grow as industries increase their investment in automation. In the long run, the demand for more robots and cobots will be seen in traditional manufacturing, textiles, and other labor-intensive industries. The robot industry is set for more substantial growth starting in 2022, providing opportunities for various types of suppliers of manufacturing technology.