June 11, 2015      

Very pricey core technology

There’s not much of anything to build if you don’t have parts.

China is learning that the hard way as its indigenous robot manufacturers decry the steep price increases coming from their Japanese suppliers.

Li Jinke, deputy director of China’s Industrial Research Institute, reported to xzlrobot.com that critical parts for China’s robot industry are being sold at exorbitant prices by Japanese suppliers.

In some cases, the price hikes are four to five times higher than in Japan where they are manufactured.

Shanghai’s National Business Daily reported that the steep increases mostly involved four must-have parts, core technology for any robot: servomotors, servo drives, controllers, and decelerators, especially RV decelerators.

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For example, an all-critical robot part like an RV decelerator that is offered to domestic buyers in Japan for $800 to $970 per unit, is sold to Chinese buyers for $3,200 to $4,800 per unit.

The net effect of the increase is to drive up the overall cost of locally produced Chinese robots.

Imported mechanical arms from Japan sell for $12,900 in China, while locally produced Chinese arms using imported parts cost approximately $12,100 each, a virtual dead heat when it comes to a customer decision based on price.

Since imported robots (as well as those made in China by foreign manufacturers) are generally recognized as being of much better quality and of having a longer lifespan, Chinese customers opt for paying for the import.

Breaking down the production costs of industrial robots, decelerators account for about 38 percent of a robot’s cost, servo systems 25 percent, and controllers about 15 percent.

Japan’s Nabtesco dominates the decelerator market, with over 2 million units installed since 1985.

There are two kinds of decelerators around at present: harmonic decelerators and RV decelerators. Chinese producers have made breakthroughs in harmonic decelerators, such as Leader Harmonious Drive Systems Co., which shipped more than 20,000 harmonic decelerators last year.

There are also several indigenous producers of RV decelerators in China, but their products are still in trial stages and output is not yet stable enough to meet local demand.

Japan’s response: buy in volume

From the Japanese side, the reply to China’s price gouging claim is that China needs to increase the volume of its orders. Larger orders, better prices.

“Japanese robot makers have much higher demand for decelerators than Chinese robot manufacturers,” reported China Times, “so selling to the former is like wholesale, while selling to the latter is considered retail.”

With China now the world’s largest buyer of high-end industrial robots as well manufacturer of 1.6 million of its own domestic machines, “mostly concentrated on low-end robots,” not many actually believe the “buy in volume” argument.

With the signing of a free trade deal with South Korea (on June 1, 2015) that removes tariffs on more than 90 percent of goods over two decades, Korea is another source of core technology for robots. China may have found a timely way around Japan’s pricey robot parts.