August 10, 2016      

Certain countries are widely regarded as robotics leaders: the U.S., Germany, Japan, and India, to name a few. Others are relative unknowns, but the United Arab Emirates’ public-private initiatives and Taiwanese industry’s increasing automation make them robotics players worth examining.

Like other smaller or lesser-known countries, Taiwan’s strategy is unique in its own way. How is Taiwan investing in robotics, and equally important, why is it investing?

Outward > Inward

For many robot powers, like Japan or the U.S., the investments in robotics are taking place within the country. When it comes to Taiwanese industry, it is the opposite — robotics investments are taking place outside the country.

In a way, Taiwan is pioneering a new kind of foreign direct investment — focused on robotics.

For example, Taipei-based Foxconn Technology Group is the world’s largest electronics manufacturer. It employs an estimated 1.3 million people, more than the active-duty troops every military except those of the U.S., China, and India.

Foxconn has gained fame for assembling Apple Inc. products such as the iPhone and iPad. Because many of Foxconn’s factories are located in China, many assume that it’s a Chinese company. Quite the contrary, and it is one of the leaders for robotic investments and advancements coming from Taiwan.

In 2011, Foxconn announced plans to replace human workers with robots. The company, also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., planned to introduce 1 million robots in its factories within three years.

This strategy didn’t accelerate as fast as Foxconn hoped. It had only 50,000 robots in its factories as of 2015. However, Foxconn’s automation vision helped it develop its robotic capabilities.

In 2015, Foxconn’s robotic strategy accelerated. The company opened a “robotics testing lab” in China and moved to increase automation in its Chinese factories to a rate of 30 percent by 2020.

At the same time, Foxconn has reached into the hospitality market. It put a robot called “Foxbot” into service at a restaurant in northern China. Its role? Slicing noodles.

Foxconn extends Taiwanese industry overseas

Late last year, reports surfaced that Foxconn was looking to purchase robot production firms in the U.S. The company needs to increase its manufacturing capacity beyond Chinese or Taiwanese industry when it comes to robots.

Pepper is an example of Taiwanese industry partnering with Chinese and Japanese companies.

Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou and SoftBank’s Pepper robot.

The company has also reportedly invested $120 million into a Cayman Islands subsidiary for robotics and cloud computing.

In addition, Foxconn this spring acquired Sharp Corp. for $3.5 billion after initially offering as much as $5 billion. Osaka, Japan-based Sharp makes organic light-emitting diode technology used in iPad screens, but it will have to lay off workers to reduce expenses.

While Foxconn develops its own robotic capabilities, it is also serving as the manufacturer for SoftBank Robotics Corp.’s Pepper robot. Currently, Foxconn is manufacturing 10 Pepper robots an hour at its factory in China. The companies want to increase this number to 15.

This year, Foxconn’s robotic capabilities made headlines around the world when it announced that it would replace 60,000 of 110,000 workers in one factory with robots.

Asus offers Zenbo household robot

Foxconn is not the only Taiwanese industry player interested in robotics. Another company is Asustek Computer Inc., which has traditionally grown by offering affordable consumer electronics and serving as the manufacturing house for other companies like Google Inc. and Hewlett Packard.

In May, Asus unveiled an “affordable” household robot named Zenbo (see image above; no launch date yet). The voice-activated robot is meant to serve as a butler. It is designed help homeowners conduct chores like waking up children or entertaining them, among other things.

Is Zenbo the beginning of Taiwanese industry providing homegrown alternatives to Japan’s Pepper and China’s Big-i?

The advances in robotics that Foxconn and Asus are leading can be viewed another way. In October 2015, Asus announced that it will begin manufacturing smartphones in India. It partnered with Foxconn and plans to open a factory in Andhra Pradesh, a coastal state in southeast India.

If Asus and Foxconn are both involved in manufacturing and selling their own robots, will they deploy them in new markets like India, as Foxconn has done in China?

If so, it will mean that Taiwanese electronics companies are going into foreign markets and using the products of Taiwanese industry over local alternatives. What will this mean for industrial automation and innovations coming from the markets where Asus, Foxconn, and other Taiwanese companies are operating?

Like Intel Corp. and Qualcomm Inc., Foxconn and Asus are hoping that by using and selling robots, they can mitigate flattening demand for the technology in smartphones and tablets.

More on Taiwanese Industry and Robotics:

Taiwan to be the factory of the future?

Clearly, the private sector in Taiwan is leading robotic advancements for the country. But why are companies like Foxconn and Asus doing this?

One answer is that in the future, robotics will be as important to Taiwanese industry as manufacturing was in the past. Foxconn and Asus, along with other Taiwanese companies, are setting their sights on getting a significant share of the Asian robotics market.

Taiwan has traditionally been viewed as one of Asia’s cheaper destinations for technology manufacturing. Will Taiwan become Asia’s affordable robotics factory? If so, the private sector is leading Taiwanese industry to become one of the world’s most important robotic markets.

In my next article, we’ll look at how Taiwan’s government is incorporating robotics into its economic transformation.