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east asian robotics

HRG Robotics and GJG recently announced a collaboration in South Korea (PRNewsfoto/HIT Robot Group)

April 04, 2018      

Collaboration is not typically the first word associated with East Asian robotics, but in recent years, the intense competition between companies in the region has also led to increased collaboration, often between neighboring countries. However, in many ways, these collaborations are simply just another way that governments and private companies are looking to flex their power over their close rivals by forming partnerships that open up new markets and increase profits.

The trend arguably started in late 2015, when South Korea made headlines after contacting Samsung to develop robots with the goal of replacing Chinese labor.

Since then, a focus of robotics in Asia-Pacific has been on how the robotics initiatives by South Korea and China will develop (independently) and if they will generate friction between the two countries.

Is collaboration in East Asian robotics possible?

The first collaboration of this kind came back in 2016, when Gyeonggi, a province in South Korea, entered talks with Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, three provinces located in northeast China.

Talks with the first two provinces revolved around forestry and farming, but with Heilongjiang, the discussion was about cooperation in cars, information technology and, robotics.

Fast forward to this year, and HRG Robotics and GJG, both Chinese technology companies, are establishing a joint venture in Pohang, South Korea. The agreement also sees both Korean and Chinese universities working to bring Korean companies and technology to China to further development in the country.

To tap the robotics innovations in China (and beyond), grow the economy and ensure an equal playing field, South Korea is using the public sector (government) to pursue collaboration in robotics.

South Korea is looking to grow its robotics and automation sector to a $6.5 billion valuation by 2022. In February, the country’s government said it would specifically emphasize the development of cobots for industrial use. The plan also looks to increase the number of small and medium-sized robotics companies

What is China’s strategy?

While South Korea seeks to retain their position as the country with the highest robot density, China is looking to establish itself as the top East Asian robotics nation.

Last year, China’s industrial robot sales hit $4.2 billion, overtaking Japan as the world’s largest industrial robot market. However, development of robotics within China lags behind both its regional neighbors and other top robotics nations worldwide, a probable driver for the recent partnership between HRG Robotics and GJC, which sees South Korean companies and technology move into China.

China has made it clear that it wants to become part of the Top 10 group of countries when it comes to robot density (the number of robots per 10,000 workers). Currently, South Korea leads robot density, with 478 robots per 10,000 workers, while China sits at 28th place at 36 per 10,000 workers.

Siemens announced late last year that its China subsidiary was chosen to lead the company’s global research into autonomous robotics. This signifies the market potential, especially for China-based companies. And with the Chinese market expected to grow 23.4% per year until at least 2019, with a concurrent loss of 10 million people per year in the labor force, the investment outlook is strong.

Yaskawa is another company boosting its footprint in China, announcing late last year that it is renovating its factory in China, boosting its output of industrial robots in the country by 25%. The company is specifically looking to boost production of smaller industrial robots used in the manufacturing of electronics, targeting the major Chinese electronics industry as a key buyer.

Are these collaborations future-proof?

It is not news that South Korea or China are global leaders in robotics. But, what is news is that these countries, who have found themselves in close competition until this point, are appearing to be working ever more closely together.

This convergence has repercussions. First, how will the U.S., which views South Korea as one of its most important allies in Asia-Pacific, respond to growing Chinese influence in a major technology industry like robotics?

Second\, is there a role for Japan play in these East Asian robotics collaborations? And where can Southeast Asian countries enter this mix?

Perhaps the biggest challenge is whether South Korea and China can keep their strategies intact and successfully work together without building any tensions in the process.