China’s domestic cobot producers might reach an inflection point this year, a robotic industry expert said recently.
In an interview with Caixin, a business and financial magazine, Wei Hongxing, chairman of Aubo (遨博智能), one of the largest cobot manufacturers in China, said that as giants like BYD and CATL introduce cobots in batches to upgrade their production lines, China’s homegrown cobots might experience a shift from small-scale adoption to mass deployment.
“In the next two to three years, the sector is expected to increase at a CAGR of 40%,” Wei told Caixin.
Although China is a latecomer to cobot development, the country has made tremendous inroads over the years, with the velocity and position repeatability of Chinese-made cobots almost on par with traditional industrial robots.
Compared to industrial robots, cobots are relatively safer, more flexible and easier to use and deploy, devoid of the fences that are needed to separate industrial robots from factory works due to safety concerns.
In addition, although some traditional industrial robot firms have branched out into cobots, their products are iterated at a slow pace and still modeled after a design for industrial robot clusters.
“This hardly gives them a cost advantage,” said Wei.
What’s more, cobots also differ vastly with its industrial peers both in hardware mechanism, operation system and algorithms.
Coming from behind
China’s cobot industry began to prosper with the rise of 3C industry, followed by a foray into automobile, new energy and hardware sectors.
According to MIR, an industry and automation think tank, in 2022, auto parts, electronics and metal products were the three largest clients of cobots in China, representing 23.36%, 17.48% and 13.44%, respectively.
Of them, automaking has been a major application scenario. Cobots help replace some of the antiquated production equipment at car factories and realize human-machine coordination on the assembly line.
In Wei’s opinion, cobots used to be adopted mainly by car parts OEMs, which tended to buy several or dozens of units.
Things began to change last year, with a handful of OEMs purchasing hundreds and even thousands of cobots to update their production.
With economies of scale come falling prices, which further pushed up demand and led to higher market penetration.
Another factor in favor of domestic cobot builders is an improvement to their performance metrics including speed, accuracy and more. Wei believes that as technologies keep growing, cobots with a 50kg payload will gradually replace traditional industrial robots.
Wider use cases
He pointed out during the interview that cobots enjoy wider use cases beyond industry.
“In the future, most applications (of cobots) will be outside of industrial scenarios, such as in fitness, healthcare and service industries,” said Wei. “They have a huge demand for cobots.”
Data from MIR shows that in 2022, cobot shipment to non-industrial areas accounted for roughly 20% of the total in China’s cobot market.
In 2022, China’s cobot shipment amounted to more than 19,000 units, up 23.5% year on year, and is expected to cross the 50,000 mark in 2025. The segment is poised to expand by a CAGR of 37% between 2023 and 2025.
Notably, domestic cobot developers have taken the lion’s share of the domestic market. In 2015-2022, the market share of home-made cobots leaped to 86% from 23.8%, statistics from MIR revealed.
China’s cobot industry has come a long way, despite being a latecomer to the scene. Danish company Universal Robots (优傲机器人) rolled out the world’s first-ever mass-produced cobot in 2008.
It wasn’t until 2014 or 2015 that similar startups cropped up in China, with some of them — JAKA Robotics (节卡机器人), Dobot (越疆科技), Aubo (遨博), Elite Robots (艾利特) and Rokae (珞石机器人) — now growing big enough to take on incumbents like Universal Robots.
According to Wei, cobot is China’s strengths, not its weakness. Its supply chain is becoming more mature and features higher levels of homegrown substitution as opposed to industrial robots.
“Cobots have a less stringent requirement for speed and accuracy, making it easier for domestic suppliers to grow and then for them to improve technical standards together with robotic body makers,” he noted.
As he sees it, one of the biggest advantages of domestic players is that their iterations come faster, thanks to the fact that core components are almost entirely produced or sourced at home.
“We initially used imported harmonic reducers, which were supplied every half year or even a year,” said Wei. “Domestic equivalents were slightly worse in effects and performance but iterated every three months, which quickly met our needs.”