October 20, 2015      

South Korea hopes that robots will help it be competitive with cheap Chinese manufacturing, even as both countries pursue industrial automation.

Samsung Electronics Co. and the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy will be spending 16.75 billion won ($14.8 million) over the next three years to develop robotic components and make the country less reliant on Chinese labor.

“Emphasis will be placed on developing precision speed reducers, motors, controllers, and sensor encoders that are currently expensive and imported from abroad,” the ministry told the Yonhap news agency. “Once affordable robots reach the market and are more widely used, it can lead to the creation of ‘smart factories’ and bring about far-reaching innovations to the manufacturing sector.”

Rising labor costs in China are affecting global trade, even as it and other nations adopt more industrial automation. Last year, 57,096 industrial robots were sold in China, 56 percent more than in 2013, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

South Korea is the fourth largest robot market, with an increase in 2014 sales to 24,700 units, primarily in the automotive industry, after a slower increase from 2010 to 2013.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) says that it is also one of the most aggressive adopters of robotics worldwide, along with Indonesia, Taiwan, and Thailand. Other regions, notably Europe, have been slower.

“Large manufacturing countries won’t just compete for the cost of human labor — they’ll increasingly compete with robotics adoption too,” said BCG.

In addition, the South Korean government wants to encourage small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) to make and use robots and to compete with Chinese manufacturers.

South Korea is a leader in global industrial robot adoption

South Korea is behind only China, Japan, and the U.S. in robot sales.

Increasing use of home-grown automation is intended to control costs and keep South Korean industry competitive. The Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy awarded $2.7 billion to robotics last year.

Robots are already used in precision assembly of mobile phones and other consumer electronics, and Samsung is the largest electronics maker in South Korea. The company will provide product specifications, quality control, and commercialization advice for mass-produced, six-axis vertical articulated robots.

South Korea is also pursuing expertise in artificial intelligence. SK Telecom held a “deep learning” forum this past summer with IBM and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). SK Telecom is also providing robots to 300 preschools in Costa Rica in cooperation with the Inter-American Development Bank.

Another victory for South Korea was when KAIST’s team won this year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge with its Hubo robot.

Don’t count out China yet

China is also turning to industrial automation to compete as its workforce ages and demands higher salaries.

Foxconn Technology Group (Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. plans to replace 1 million workers with robots. However, it still had to hire 100,000 people for the latest iPhone model.

Shanghai Huakuo Automation Engineering Co. is setting up a factory in the Pudong Kangqiao Industrial Zone, joining Shanghai Electric, Switzerland-based ABB Ltd., and Japan-based FANUC Corp. in industrial parks near Shanghai.

The global robotics market has overall revenues of $10.7 billion and an annual growth rate of 22 percent over the past six years, said the IFR. The organization predicts that the growth rate for the next few years will be 18 percent.

Some analysts predict that the amount of goods manufactured by robots in South Korea could grow from 10 percent today to 25 percent by 2025.