A New Robot Density Must Track Global Robotics Growth

September 11, 2016      

How do you determine how advanced a country is when it comes to robotics? One measure, “robot density,” is the number of robots per 10,000 workers. Is it the best way?

Or, robotics organizations can count the number of robotics companies in a country, look at the kinds of innovations coming out of the country, or see what government strategies exist for robotics — if any.

Robot density is one of the easiest ways to find out how big the robotics industry is in a country.

The term made headlines recently when China announced its intention to join the top 10 nations in terms of industrial automation. The country wants to boost its domestic production to 100,000 robots by 2020 and, by the same year, reach a robot density of 150, up from its current level of 36.

China's robot density is still lower than that of many industrialized nations.

China is still behind in adopting industrial automation.

Robot density is nothing new. It is constantly used by robotics companies to decide where to expand, invest, and prepare for competition. In 2014, the three global leaders in robot density were South Korea (478 robots per 10,000 workers), Japan (314 robots) and Germany (292 robots).

While robot density remains an important metric, it is an old one. It was created for a time when the main applications for robotics were in manufacturing and heavy industry — perhaps one of the reasons why Germany, Japan, and South Korea lead in this index.

But today, robotics is becoming part of everything. Is it time for a new way to calculate a nation’s rate of robotics adoption and usage? What about a “new robot density,” or NRD?

NRD includes calculations based on the different kinds of robots in a country, instead of assuming that they’re all in manufacturing.

China as an example of new robot density

Take China for example. By 2023, South Korea is projected to have a robot density of 1,000 robots per 10,000 workers. If China raised its robot density to the same level, it would have 11 million industrial robots.

But in 2023, China’s robotics landscape will encompass more than just industrial robots. Baidu Inc., the Chinese version of Google/Alphabet, wants to bring self-driving cars to Chinese roads by 2021.

JD.com Inc., a Chinese digital retailer, is already using drones to deliver goods to people in rural areas. China could also become a major market for household robots, as seen in Chinese appliance maker Midea Group Corp.’s recent bid for Germany-based KUKA Robotics AG.

In a short time, China’s robotic landscape will include multiple kinds of robots, and these should be taken into account with NRD, or we’ll have an incomplete or oversimplified picture of robotics there.

Using NRD in Germany

While Germany is famous for its pursuit of “Industry 4.0” and previously put forward €500 million ($561 million) to develop new technologies, other robotics developments are taking place as well.

Deutsche Post AG (DP) is among the delivery services testing Starship Technologies’ mobile robot. The wheeled robot is intended to help mail workers deliver more parcels. It follows the postal worker and stops when he or she does.

Estonia-based startup Starship Technologies is testing its delivery robots in two cities in Europe, and one of them is Dusseldorf, Germany. DP is also exploring “mobile pickup points,” where a robot would get parcels from customers.

In addition, German companies are looking at using drones to monitor parcels in China and robots to move goods in factories.

In July, Germany won Robocup, a robotic football tournament. By 2050, the organizers hope these robots will be able to take on human soccer players.

All of this signals a diversification among Germany’s robotics end users, away from industrial automation and into areas such as collaborative robots and autonomous vehicles. This again makes the case for NRD.

What does NRD mean for me?

Robotics powers such as China and Germany — and would-be robotics powers — should take the entire array of robotics developments into account when developing robotics strategies. If they don’t, governmental and corporate calculations could be off, affecting research, investment, and trade deals.

A new robot density measurement will also affect how robotics companies position themselves.

For instance, India today is a slow but emerging robotics power. In 2014, only 2,100 robots were sold in India. Industrial automation isn’t taking off there as fast as it is in other countries, like China. But smartphones with artificial intelligence built into them are taking off in India.

In July, Panasonic India said it plans to spend $10 million acquiring AI companies.

Will robotic smartphones be for India what industrial automation was for China?

If machine learning and AI applications are important in such a large market, then collaborative robotics providers such as Universal Robots A/S and Rethink Robotics Inc. may need to reassess what they are selling in the Indian market.

Makers of consumer robots, service robots, and healthcare robots will also want to develop new offerings around India’s unique interests.

More on Global Robot Density and Diversification:

New robot density leads to a new worldview

NRD also changes how we measure and compare robotics around the world. Sure, industrial automation is still at the heart of robotics in China and South Korea. But in 2023, when South Korea is expected to have a robot density of 1,000, will it be fair to compare with China if the latter has diversified in its robotics usage?

Social robots could soon be part of the new robot density.

The Zenbo from Asus is competing with SoftBank’s Pepper.

Finally, new robot density can go one step further. It can also include the trade of robots.

For example, Taiwan can count the imports of SoftBank Robotics Corp.’s humanoid Pepper in its NRD. But so can other countries if they begin importing Zenbo, a humanoid robot from Taiwan’s ASUStek Computer Inc.

Until now, robot density has been defined around traditional industrial parameters.

Now, robotics is rapidly diversifying, and national and corporate ambitions are following. With this comes the need for a new way to and understand how robotics is doing in a given market.

Is a new robot density the solution?