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Transitioning from follower to innovator

China Daily Updated: 2022-10-13

In robotics, China takes rapid strides to evolve to next higher level, spurs emerging business

In some sophisticated hotels in digital-era China these days, within minutes of seeking room service via in-house phone system or the hotel app, guests hear a funny yet very courteous electronic voice and a firm knock-knock on their room door. Upon opening the door, they will likely see a gleaming, android-like advanced service robot, which must have reached the room using the elevator independently.

Such futuristic scenes abound at other sites too. For instance, at exhibition venues, robots greet visitors and guide them through exhibits.

At manufacturing plants, robots work 24 hours a day to produce and assemble industrial products according to the procedures set by engineers.

In fact, such robots contributed to the early and effective resumption of work and production after the disruptions of the COVID-19 outbreaks in 2020 and this year as well.

What is enabling China's rapid strides in robotics is its accelerated integration of artificial intelligence, 5G, new materials and other emerging technologies, experts said.

In China, robotics has been applied in an ever-increasing number of fields, spawning new industries and new businesses. This trend has greatly impacted the way production is done. Besides, people's daily lives have improved, showing that robotics is a strong driver of economic and social development, they said.

"In recent years, robots have increasingly become an indispensable part of smart factories as well as key equipment to achieve intelligent manufacturing," said Tao Yong, an associate research fellow at Beihang University in Beijing.

"Seeing robots as strategic high-end products, the world's major developed countries, such as the United States, Germany and Japan, have accelerated the push for research and development."

Tao explained that companies will be able to reduce production costs and improve product quality by replacing human workers with robots. And when it comes to social services, robots can perform tasks like unmanned delivery as well as cleaning and disinfection during COVID-19 outbreaks.

Over the past few years, the Chinese government has been ramping up efforts to promote the high-quality development of the robotics industry, taking solid steps such as formulating industrial plans, stimulating technological innovation, cultivating application scenarios and optimizing the business environment. After years of development, China has become the world's largest robot application market.

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed the country produced 366,000 industrial robots and 9.21 million service robots in 2021, up 68 percent and 49 percent year-on-year, respectively.

As of the end of 2021, the number of "little giant" robotics enterprises reached 101. In China, "little giants "are firms, typically small or medium-sized, that specialize in niches, command high market share and boast strong innovation capacity.

Xin Guobin, vice-minister of industry and information technology, told the World Robot Conference 2022 held in August in Beijing that industrial robots have already been adopted in 60 industries and 168 sub-industries. The intelligent manufacturing system with industrial robots at its core is playing an increasingly important role in driving the digital transformation of the manufacturing sector.

In the first half of this year, the total disclosed financing amount in the robotics industry exceeded 5 billion yuan ($702.64 million), mainly in key fields like core parts, collaborative robots and surgery robots, Xin said.

The robotics industry is entering an important period of strategic opportunity to develop, and a batch of new-generation robots have popped up in the market, helping boost productivity and improve the quality of people's lives, he said.

Proof of that can be found in the way some of the disabled and the elderly are able to stand up and walk with the help of an exoskeleton robot. During the torch relay for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, Chinese torchbearer Yang Shuting managed to finish her tasks with the help of a wearable exoskeleton robot. And Shao Haipeng, another torchbearer, wore it to easily gather the torch.

Such exoskeleton robots are developed by Beijing AI-Robotics Technology Co. Shuai Mei, chairman of AI-Robotics, said exoskeleton robots can automatically recognize the user's intention through sensing networks and AI algorithms.

For example, the exoskeleton robots can sense how fast or slow a person walks, and then adapt to human behaviors in a compatible way, she said.

So far, the company has provided exoskeleton robots to over 20 hospitals in Beijing to help patients living with hemiplegia, paraplegia or cerebral palsy and the elderly who have trouble walking.

Shuai said purchasing an exoskeleton robot will usually cost at least 500,000 yuan, while AI-Robotics has introduced a version for personal use priced at over 100,000 yuan. "This product has been used by thousands of patients, and we will announce a new version at a lower price this year."

Shuai said she is optimistic about the bright market prospects for rehabilitation robots. As China is faced with an aging society, the development of rehabilitation robots will accelerate after the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25), with an expected market size, in terms of annual sales revenue, of at least 100 billion yuan. This segment of the robot market is considered to be in its infancy now.

Sun Lining, dean of the School of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering at Soochow University, said robots are key high-end equipment used in the field of intelligent health. Demand for them is booming, he said.

He also explained the blossoming artificial intelligence, robotics and big data fields provide technical support for new robotics applications. In addition, after decades of accumulation of robotics technology, China is ready to employ talent, technologies and research teams to develop robots for medical applications, brightening the market prospects and thus contributing to the efforts to improve people's health.

As for the future development of industrial robots, Sun said as the current intelligent manufacturing is considered as an important part of the digital development of national industrial upgrading, industrial robots will find clear and bigger applications.

However, industrial robots will encounter technical challenges as they are often exposed to harsh or difficult environments. For example, collaborative robots need to be light in weight and require sophisticated technologies.

Sun also emphasized the importance of building a collaborative innovation environment through the joint efforts of industries, universities and research institutes.

More efforts will be made to build a friendly environment for industrial clusters, promote the commercialization of scientific and technological advances, encourage innovation and entrepreneurship and cultivate more professional talent, he said.

Zhao Mingguo, a research fellow with the Department of Automation at Tsinghua University, said China's robotics industry has developed rapidly in the last decade and is set to gradually catch up with that in advanced economies.

In fact, China has already taken a lead in some fields like drones. However, its future development will face difficulties and needs innovation to go further. And China's newly developed robotics segments such as service robots also encounter some problems, like low efficiency and lack of an overall stable business model, he said.

Talent shortage faced by the robotics sector does not mean that there are fewer people trained, but that the needs and training methods do not necessarily match, he said.

"Owing to the rapid development of robotics, we now need more talent with innovative thinking. China is expected to transition from a follower to an innovator. And it is advisable for the government to introduce policies to guide the design of school curricula, activities and disciplines, which will take at least five or 10 years to produce the desired outcomes."

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