May 05, 2016      

The automotive industry is one of the biggest users of robotics, but it’s far from saturated with automation. In addition to autonomous vehicles, the demand for advanced manufacturing has driven automotive robotics partnerships between U.S. and Chinese companies. For example, Zhejiang Wanfeng Technology Development Co. last month reportedly acquired The Paslin Co. from Tower Three Partners for $302 million.

Lincoln International LLC advised Tower Three Partners on the deal. Wanfeng Technology is a Zhejiang, China-based manufacturer and systems integrator whose products include a high-pressure, die-casting robot. Its parent company, Wanfeng Group, had revenue of $3 billion last year.

Not only are Chinese companies hoping to tap technical innovation through such partnerships, but they’re also looking to the next generation of automobiles, which are expected to be lighter and will require more flexible industrial automation.

“Wanfeng could acquire advanced welding robot technology through this acquisition, which will be used in the entire vehicle manufacturing process that Wanfeng hasn’t tapped into in the past,” said Qu Xianming, executive director of the Chinese Mechanical Engineering Society.

Chinese and American executives at Wanfeng-Paslin merger.

Wanfeng Technology and Paslin executives celebrate the acquisition.

Concerns about economic competitiveness, massive amounts of traffic, and air pollution are also compelling China’s pursuit of self-driving cars and robotics.

Michigan retools for jobs

Warren, Mich.-based Paslin designs and builds robotic welding and assembly equipment for the automotive industry. Paslin has about 730 employees and reassured local officials that the purchase would not cost any American jobs.

“This is not about reducing our investment or workforce,” Kirk Goins, CEO of Paslin, told the Detroit Free Press. “How many of our jobs are we going to lose? Not a damned one. We need 150 more people.”

“We plan to continue to focus on NAFTA execution commitments and support the existing Paslin expansion plans in the North American market,” said Wu Jinhua, chairman and CEO of Wanfeng.

The Michigan Strategic Fund, which is part of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., recently created the 21st Century Jobs Fund. The fund will award $5 million in grants encouraging Chinese investment in the state.

Auro gets funding for self-driving shuttles

Elsewhere in automotive robotics, Auro Robotics Inc. has secured $2 million in funding from Motus Ventures and Rothenberg Ventures in addition to previous funding from Y Combinator.

Auro Robotics founders with their vehicle.

Auro Robotics’ founders have been developing driverless shuttles.

Self-driving cars face significant challenges, including competing research and development efforts, high consumer expectations, and the threat of government regulation. However, autonomous vehicles face fewer barriers in controlled environments such as college campuses.

“Operating at lower speeds, free of complex government regulations, with the right technologies, we can go completely driverless today versus in nine years, as projected for public transportation,” said Jim DeSanto, managing partner at Motus Ventures. “We’ve seen strong demand for around-the-clock autonomous shuttle services on college and corporate campuses, military bases, and retirement communities.”

Auro Robotics plans to deploy autonomous shuttles to a major U.S. university this year. It is piloting the Auro Prime electric vehicles, sensors, and guidance and cloud-based fleet-management software at Santa Clara University.

“Motus Ventures provides us with unparalleled industry expertise and connections to help us scale autonomy in the automotive market right away,” said Nalin Gupta, CEO of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Auro Robotics.

More on Automotive Robotics:

Finland breaks robotic record

Valmet Automotive Inc. will be buying more than 250 welding robots from ABB Group in the largest robotics purchase in Finnish history. Valmet already uses more than 200 robots from Zurich-based ABB Robotics in its production of Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

The new robots will be used next year in the manufacture of the GLC sport utility vehicle (which will have a hydrogen fuel-cell option). The new robots are more precise and energy-efficient, said ABB. They are also expected to improve Valmet’s flexibility and productivity.