First it was Hiwin Technologies Corp. and Advantech back in July of 2014, and now here goes Advantech once again, this time partnering with Japan’s Panasonic.
The goal: “to build robotics into Taiwan’s next core industry over the next 20 years,” says Advantech’s chairman and CEO, K.C. Liu.
According to Nikkei Asian Review: “As Chinese and other Asian smartphone makers focus on higher-value handsets, manufacturing processes have become increasingly complex. Demand for factory automation is expected to keep growing, with help from the rise of the Internet of Things. Panasonic hopes that the latest collaboration will add momentum to its business expansion.”
Two small steps in partnering does not a robot industry make, however, it?s a beginning for a country of 24 million residents that was getting marginalized to that of low-end robots and robot parts.
See related: Taiwanese Firms Form Industrial Robot Alliance
The challenge is on
The Financial Times reports: “Five countries — China, the US, Japan, Germany and South Korea — are expected to account for about 80 percent of investment in industrial robots over the coming decade.” Three of the five are Taiwan’s neighbors, while China is its largest trading partner.
Of the 200,000 industrial robots sold worldwide in 2014, China, Japan and South Korea took the lion’s share, with China purchasing a global best at 56,000. Taiwan purchased 6,900.
With the rising worldwide need for high-end industrial robots for Industry 4.0 manufacturing and logistics operations, and with Japan, South Korea and China rolling out capabilities to address just that future scenario, Taiwan must act very quickly in order to get into play.
Worldwide sales of industrial robots rose 23 percent in 2014 and are on course to double by 2018, which means there is lots of opportunity to sell robots in East Asia for the foreseeable future.
Can Taiwan grow its robotics industry?
With its neighbors (Japan, Korea and China) already leagues ahead in developing an indigenous robot industry, Taiwan is finally joining its mates as the Asian Century vaults itself into a future of robot-driven automation.
Small but powerfully wealthy and boasting a formidable electronics skill set, Taiwan is positioned to do well in robotics, if it so chooses. Time, however, is not on its side.
Sure, Hon Hai Precision Industry, more commonly known by its trade name, Foxconn — the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer and also a heavyweight producer of industrial robots — makes its corporate home in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, yet builds tens thousands of robots for itself and its customers on the mainland.
Foxconn’s sales are not reported by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) because Foxconn isn’t a member of the Taiwan Automation Intelligence and Robotics Association (TAIROA) nor are they reported as a Chinese manufacturer or a member of the new CRIA (Chinese Robot Industry Alliance).
Taiwan’s indigenous robot producers sell about $1.5 billion in robots annually. Not much, especially in light of Taiwan’s $78 billion in ICs and micro-assemblies. Robots, in fact, don’t crack the top 20 list of highest value export products.
If, however, Taiwan can crank up a stout robot business, then being a premier electronics part maker becomes a huge asset. A single country producing both high-end robots and high-end robot parts, especially a country with lots of electronics assembly work at hand, seems like a sound strategy for success.
Taiwan has been supporting robot R&D for seven years, so maybe more private partnerships like the Advantech/Hiwin/Panasonic deals are what is needed for a breakout moment for Taiwan robotics.
Much is yet to be done.
The research report “The Machine Industry in Taiwan” points out underlying weaknesses that will need swift attention:
- Most robots are manufactured by automatic component factories, system factories, machinery factories or agent. Local manufacturers are capable of producing unitary axial robots and vertical coordinate robots, and have to rely on foreign countries for higher-scale robots.
- A few manufacturers and research institutes have begun to develop high-scale robots. However, Taiwan has to import critical components (e.g. server motor, controller, decelerators) from foreign countries. Thus, production costs become too high.
- To the worse extent, domestic users are reluctant to use Taiwan-made robots that have not been proven successful yet. Therefore, local robot manufacturers prefer to act as agents to distribute imported robots.
- Most manufacturers in the country act as importing agents for foreign-brand robots; a handful of manufacturers focus on unitary axial robots or Cartesian coordinate robots, SCARA robots, and parallel-structured robots; few manufacturers are involved in multi-joint robots. Research institutes are, therefore, expected to design and develop multi-joint robots for industrial use.
- Locally, a handful of manufacturers are capable of controlling and executing the motions of mechanism modules, control modules, driving modules, and sensor modules that are required by the simple-type industrial robots.
- The manufacturers are capable of producing most critical components, such as linear slides, lead screws, end effectors, PC-based, PLC, industrial computers, motors, decelerators, drivers, and various sensors.
- However, domestic manufacturers lack the know-how needed for controllability, product precision, and durability. Therefore, they have to import components.
With the largest robot buyer in the world — and largest for many years to come — sitting a scant hundred miles away across the Taiwan Strait, this is one important challenge that Taiwan needs to get right.