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January 26, 2014      

BANGKOK: With a land mass the size of France, a population of 67M and a GDP of $387 billion — increasing 3.7% in 2013 — Thailand sits in an enviable position central to its fellow members in the ten-nation ASEAN community.

“We’re more determined than confident.”

Thailand also sits in an enviable position to take a commanding leadership role in ASEAN robotics, both on the research laboratory front and also with applied robotics for commerce and industry.
With slightly under 10,000 industrial robots already installed and another 4,000 newly purchased, Thailand has been tabbed by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) as one of Asia’s fastest growing robot markets.

With good reason: In 2013 most of these new robots went to work in the world’s fastest-growing auto manufacturing hub (according to the Paris-based International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers) where Thailand’s auto production has surged 70%, to 2.48 million vehicles, easily besting its ASEAN rival, Indonesia.

And this recent trending of more robot imports is not limited to automobile producers only: Danish manufacturer, Universal Robots, is looking at Thailand’s other hot industry segments like rubber and plastics, food and beverages for 20 percent of its total revenue, says Shermine Goftredsen, the company’s business development manager.

Add to that another $25 million annually in imports of medical robots, according to the Bangkok Post, and Thailand suddenly looks like an up and coming robotics market of major significance that?s presently flying way under the radar of most observers.

Thailand’s prospects look even better when compared to its nearest ASEAN partners.

asean 2015

Setting the ASEAN scene

On my recent swing through Asia, I had an opportunity to stop in Thailand for a first-hand look at its robotics industry. There’s a lot to like about Thai robotics:It’s energetic and eager; and it’s stocked with talented people who are very aware of the opportunities before them.

Although Thailand is definitely not a hotbed of disruptive or breakthrough robotics, its inventiveness is more than adequate, tilting toward copying existing machine technologies, then innovating and adapting them to meet specific, real-world, in-country needs.

By extension, all of Thailand’s neighbors, especially the far less advanced Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar — with a total land area twice that of Thailand — could become a ready market for Thai robotics and well benefit from the technology.

Further to the east is a resurgent Vietnam (GDP $147B) with some credible academic robotics and an interesting industrial robot manufacturer in Hanoi’s Tosy, although best known for its consumer line of entertainment robots.

However, Tran Thanh Thuy, former Deputy Head of the Electronics, Informatics and Automation Research Institute, says Vietnamese scientists have had significant achievements related to kinematics, sensors, actuators and intelligence control, but the available infrastructure remains outdated and the market is too small, making production costs too expensive.

Another major hurdle, Thuy points out, is the lack of government backing with no state policy encouraging the development of smart robots and similar products, leaving domestic enterprises clueless in investing in this industry.

By comparison, the Thai Ministry of Science and Technology has allocated $66M (two billion Thai baht) over five years to build facilities and systems to accelerate Thai robotics as well as to provide easier means for developers to match with investors to fast-track new products to market.

Indonesia, ASEAN’s biggest economy (GDP $878B) and a potential heavyweight in robot imports, is experiencing a slowing economy, reports Reuters. Its current-account deficit widens, its rupiah currency tumbles, while rising wages push manufacturing jobs toward Bangladesh.

Thailand’s only real ASEAN competition in robotics is to the south with the city-state of Singapore, which has a strong research and development infrastructure, but with barely 5M people, virtually no land and a middling GDP of $270B.

The ASEAN ‘horizontal’ supply chain

What’s at stake for Thai robotics in South East Asia is considerable. The ASEAN community includes a geographic area about half the size of the U.S. (2 million square miles) with a population equal to that of the U.S. (315M) and sporting a combined annual GDP of over $2 trillion.

Three economic events could help Thailand to solidify leadership in robotics

road to bangkok

1. By 2015, the ASEAN will realize the ASEAN Economic Community, which will be a tariff-free, single market and distribution base making for a competitive economic region with equitable economic development.

The marketplace for Thai robots, either their own or through distribution agreements with manufacturers outside of the ASEAN community, could be quite robust, if Thailand can establish itself as the undisputed hub for robotics in South East Asia.

2. Myanmar, in a joint venture with Thailand (and either Japan or China) will convert its coastal city of Dawei into a deep-sea port with a new highway (now under construction) connecting Bangkok, 220 miles to the east, with a $50B industrial hub and port at Dawei on the Andaman Sea.

This development opens the newly emergent Myanmar (now mostly isolated from much of the ASEAN community and the South China Sea) as well as India and its “Look-East” policy to easy access to Thai robotics.

3. The oft-rumored-never-tried canal project across Thailand’s Kra Isthmusa, a mere 27 miles (44 kilometers) at its thinnest point, would render the current necessity for navigating around the entire Malaysian peninsula via the Straits of Malacca obsolete; instead, the canal would directly connect the Andaman Sea in the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea.

Most obvious beneficiaries, with Thailand controlling the canal: Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. Definitely not a winner: Singapore.

The gist of the above “horizontal” supply chain scenario was related to me by a Thai roboticist in answer to my question about recent Chinese overtures regarding a “vertical” supply chain from China southward. (See China at ASEAN Conference: Awakening Tiger: South East Asian Robotics)

“Why north to south?” questioned Dr. Djitt Laowattana (DJ to his friends), who is director of the Institute of Field Robotics (FIBO) at Thailand’s King Mongkut’s University of Technology (KMUTT). “Why not a horizontal supply chain: east and west?”

Mixing business with robotics

fibo_exterior

Interestingly, Thai roboticists are very business savvy: they are well versed in supply chains, market dynamics, commerce, industry and regional competition, and integrate those worldly pursuits well into their technology plans.

For instance, the original mission of the Institute of Field Robotics (FIBO) was, as its title states, field robotics, but that’s now changed.

As DJ and his deputy director, Thavida Maneewarn, told me, which was quite evident from one glance around the laboratory, the mission is now industrial robotics, rescue bots and medical robotics.

Maneewarn, in fact, now directs the Advanced Technology Center of Manufacturing, and she’s the chief liaison to Thai business and industry.

Thai word for robot: hoonyon (literally, motorized dummy)

Greeted at the front door of the FIBO lab by their humanoid service robot named Ohm gave me an advance hint of their research direction.

They haven’t completely abandoned field robotics. Since the Fukushima disaster, an effective rescue robot is an obligatory engineering project for most robotics labs, and FIBO has rescue bots as well as a self-driving vehicle.

Closer to home, ever since the horrific floods in Thailand in 2011, robots that work to secure safe water levels are vital. FIBO has those as well: robots that measure water heights in canals, others that sound depths in rivers, others that explore the interiors of underground pipe systems, and even a small UAV that provides aerial surveillance.

However, as the International Federation of Robotics and Universal Robots have pointed out, Thailand is a happening place for industry and industrial robots of which FIBO has several in development: a robot arm for bin-picking operations as well as a robot welder. Both fit well into the country’s immediate future and are very much needed by their business sponsors and benefactors.

sensitab

FIBO also dips into medical robotics with considerable success, as evidenced by its slick-looking SensiTab rehabilitation table for rehabbing patients with arm damage. SensiTab evolved through FIBO, with its technology transferred to a marketable product that’s used daily in hospitals and other medical facilities.

Although rehab giants like Otto Bock and Hocoma have competitive products, the SensiTab is homegrown, and so is the experience and expertise of building it. That’s a key ingredient for the future of Thai robotics.

It all goes to support the word that I heard most often and from nearly every quarter of Thailand’s robotics community: technopreneurship. The basic idea is to be both a roboticists and also to be entrepreneurial in guiding one’s brainchild to market.

A definite strong suit is this pragmatic way that they shape their technology: everything is designed and built to function as planned or as near as planned as possible, to get it out of the laboratory quickly and to impact business, agriculture, medicine or the military or what ever.

Much of it is not slick or pretty looking at all, but works, which is the foremost challenge. The general consensus is that there’s always time for a robot 2.0 with pleasing cosmetics, as long as the robot’s purpose is a success. No one wants to lose face with a gorgeous dud.

One exception to the beauty rule that I noticed was the self-driving automobile at Mahidol University’s robotics lab: it is a very sleek looking white Benz.

As DJ said, with a bit of humility yet a feisty look in his eye: “We’e more determined than confident.”

All medical, all the time

bart lab1

Across town at the BART Lab (Biomedical and Robotics Technology Laboratory) at Mahidol University its definitely medical robotics throughout.

Of course, once again there were the obligatory field pieces of rescue robots, sub-sea robots, even robots for the military and police for dealing with explosives. However, over arching everything was a startling array of medical and surgical robotics.

Medicine, surgical procedures and superb hospitals are Thailand’s longstanding strong suits. Two of the top ten world’s best hospitals are in Bangkok: Bumrungrad International Hospital and the Bangkok Medical Center Hospital. The BART Lab plays to that obvious opportunity.

It’s also a point of national pride. Sirirurg Songsivilai, executive director of Thailand’s National Nanotechnology Center, touts the agricultural and the medical sectors as near-term winners, medicine especially.

World famous already in surgical expertise, he forecasts Thailand as the production center for advanced medical robots and regenerative medicine. “We have appropriate skilled human resources in robot development and medical engineering, he says. “If we want to become Asia’s healthcare hub, it is necessary that we utilize this expertise and minimize the need to import robots from overseas.”

Medical robotics on the upswing

The BART Lab, directed by Jackrit Suthakorn, who is also the chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, looked well run and busy the day I popped in for a visit. Suthakorn seemed to be a well-liked, hands-on leader with deep knowledge of every research project in his lab; and it seemed as well that he demanded much from his researchers. They joked about the need for beds in the lab (which there were) to pull all-nighters in making his deadlines.

In the lab’s simulated operating room, I got a demo for a cooperative robot to assist with laparoscopies; and then a fluoro-navigation system for properly placing and implanting surgical nails in the femur. In the central research area, I got further demos for a robotic RT-ultrasound navigation for improving clinical outcomes in breast biopsies and even a lower-limb exoskeleton that the researcher said was “going to be the best in the world.”

Before I could say that the lab looked crammed for space, I was told that construction is going on across campus for a $13M laboratory and research center (150,000 square feet). By 2015, the BART Lab will be quite commodious! In fact, DJ also had told me that his FIBO Lab was in the process of moving into its new digs this year.

Thailand’s only private robot developer is also in the medical arena. CT Asia Robotics, founded by Chalermpon Punnotok, has spent a decade developing its Dinsow personal healthcare assistant. Now in its third-generation, the robot has passed through previous trials as order taker at the MK Restaurant chain and receptionist at Muang Thai Life Assurance.

dinsow

Dinsow 3, according to Punnotok, is now ready for its targeted audience: the elderly and handicapped. “Thailand has 10M elderly citizens. Serving them are more than a hundred hospitals with a combined business value of $3B with an annual growth rate of 30 to 40 percent. A subsidiary in Japan, CT Asia KK, will simultaneously introduce Dinsow there. With the right production numbers, he says that price could drop to a little over $6K per machine.

The Tokyo-based research firm of Fuji Keizai agrees with CT Asia’s assessment, saying that “auto factories and medical institutions,”especially elder care, will drive growth and that rising sales will come from Thailand and Indonesia at first, followed by India, Myanmar and Vietnam.

In short, there is an abundance of opportunity in the ASEAN region for healthcare, medical and surgical assistive robotics, and Thailand can be a central player in this oncoming industry.

Not to be overlooked, Thailand also has an impressive manufacturing research group as well. The Regional Center of Robotics Technology at Chulalongkorn University (Thailand’s Harvard) consists of three main laboratories, including, Advanced Manufacturing Lab, Control Automation and Robotics Lab, and the center for High Precision Manufacturing.

There, however, there is mighty competition from both Japan and Europe, with Korea and Taiwan also in the manufacturing robot mix.

Songsivilai chose well when he pointed out agriculture and medical robotics as Thailand’s primary targets. And from the look of the research and development going on in labs both public and private, the crucial medical/healthcare connection is well covered.

See related:

Awakening Tiger: South East Asian Robotics

Shanghai Express: China’s Robot Metropolis 2014-2020