As China grays rapidly, the shifting demographics are on track to disrupt a number of traditional industries.
Public sanitation is one of them. Currently, much of China’s urban road sanitation work is carried out manually by an aging workforce.
But amid a labor shortage and heightened personal safety risks, this back-breaking work will increasingly be replaced by robots or autonomous sweepers.
Many tech startups have ventured into this segment, lured by the immense market potential.
Yunchuang Zhixing (云创智行, hereafter referred to as Yunchuang for short) is among the dozens of autonomous driving tech companies that chose to apply their technologies to reshape a centuries-old industry.
As things stand, China’s market for self-driving road sweepers is valued at more than 300 billion yuan, and is forecast to grow at 10% every year, according to Bai Yunlong, founder and CEO of Yunchuang, a Suzhou-based company.
Bai Yunlong, founder and CEO of Yunchuang Zhixing
He added worldwide the market size is a lot bigger, estimated to be in the range of 5 to 8 trillion yuan, based on the company’s own calculations.
Nonetheless, in recent years, the contrast between rising labor costs and demand to bolster efficiency has become starker, requiring that businesses or cities adopt more technological products to automate their sanitation operations.
Cover a whole spectrum of needs
“We are grateful that many clients chose us,” Bai told a group of journalists today at a press briefing in Suzhou. “They show high levels of approval of our innovations.”
Yunchuang has won customer support on the back of its YC family of sweepers and scrubbers.
The company debuted a medium-to-large-sized self-driving sweeper called YC-1000 today, extending the product line that already consists of YC-200 and YC-800.
Coming in different sizes and possessing different specs, they are said to cover a whole spectrum of public sanitation requirements.
In addition to the new contraption, Yunchuang also introduced for the first time its self-developed autonomous driving management system called Optimus.
Tao Xin, co-founder and CTO of Yunchuang Zhixing
“The platform is scalable and forms a data closed loop that can process data in real-time to assist the safe and efficient operation of our machines,” Tao Xin, co-founder and CTO of Yunchuang, said.
A Tsinghua university alumnus just like Bai, Tao said Yunchuang’s unmanned sweepers not just stand out for performance and reliability on the road.
Instead, the Optimus system it rolled out has put the company at the forefront of industrial innovations.
Fusion perception solution
In an outdoor scenario, which could be public road, industrial park and shopping precinct, several technical hurdles could bog down an autonomous sweeper.
Worse, they entail unbearable risks such as collision into children, pets and other moving objects, resulting in injuries and property damage.
For instance, ordinary self-driving road sweepers rely on RTK (real-time kinematic) signals to navigate their working environment.
But RTK signals are easily lost under roofs, tree canopies or in meandering corridors. Besides, the lidar solution also proves impractical at times.
Bodies of water or glass walls in the vicinity of a sweeper in action could reflect the point clouds from lidar beams and severely undermine positioning accuracy.
Yunchuang came up with a multisensory fusion perception solution to tackle these issues and solve a bunch of corner cases in real-world applications.
“Our technologies also include a safety module which prevents it crashing into objects. Basically, the chassis takes over to rein in a wayward sweeper,” Tao, the CTO, said.
How to stay ahead of the curve
Despite the technical expertise the company has amassed for three years since its founding in March 2021, the public sanitation equipment market is replete with cut-throat competition.
Right now, there are two types of players in this field, Bai said, adding that one is tech startups like Yunchuang.
The other coterie primarily comprises legacy sweeper builders like Fulongma (福龙马) and Infore Group (盈峰集团).
They stand above the crowd with rich industrial experience but are encumbered by a relative dearth of technical prowess.
On the contrary, tech startups occasionally lack deep insights into a specific industry they are keen to transform.
Yunchuang chose a different approach. Unlike many startups who dive deep into technology first, in the early days since its inception, Bai said the company worked extensively on use cases to optimize operation.
“The purpose was to set us apart as a firm with strong operations, and then clients would naturally come to us for information on our products and technologies,” he told the reporters.
That, however, doesn’t change his belief that Yunchuang is fundamentally a tech-driven company.
Two-pronged business strategy
It now implements a two-pronged business strategy. Traditional sales and delivery still reign supreme when clients request only a small number of sweepers to clean up a limited patch of area.
But when selling to bigger buyers, Yunchuang decides that offering the products and sanitation services on their behalf is a better fit, as “it boosts efficiency.”
Bai believes that the versatility of its offerings helps to beat competition.
In his opinion, each of the models, YC-200, YC-800 and YC-1000, is designed to meet varied demand, rather than just deal with a specific scenario.
His views are echoed by Tao, the CTO, who boasted that the firm’s Optimus is the only system that he knows can be deployed inside and outside industrial parks, on public roads and in other environments.
And this is where Yunchuang’s unique strengths lie, he noted.
A stronger market presence
After almost two years of R&D efforts, the fledgling firm began its foray beyond the home market in the Yangtze River Delta and into wider markets across the country in the second quarter of this year.
Its market presence now spans Yangtze and Pearl river delta regions, Sichuan-Chongqing area in the southwest, Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster in the north, and the central Chinese city agglomeration around Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province.
Local governments are one of the chief patrons of Yunchuang’s technologies. But the firm discovered over the course of its expansion that demand from real estate developers and property management firms is picking up fast.
This is because within these urban spaces, the company’s vehicles are exempt from public traffic regulations that restrict how far autonomous driving is allowed to go.
As the company opens up more markets, it has a daunting challenge that lies ahead.
The impact of a slowing economy
China’s economy is slowing dramatically, leading to a contraction in government spending. Will this cut off the prized revenue streams to Yunchuang, as it has done to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of, small and medium-sized enterprises?
Yunchuang’s Bai appears unfazed. He said in times like these, opportunities come hand in hand with challenges.
“It is an opportunity because companies like us can help businesses or public sanitation units slash costs and enhance efficiency,” he said.
Plus, it will be easier to distinguish those who have a firm foothold in the industry from those gold-diggers who leapt in when the market was still awash with prosperity — and perhaps false hope as well.
Now that the bubbles have burst, some companies with a sense commitment will emerge stronger from the crisis, he explained.
Yunchuang does help clients achieve desired cost savings. In a closed work area, such as industrial park, Yunchuang’s products can save up to three to four headcounts. The savings rise to five or six in a scenic spot.
After usually a year and a half in service, the sweepers are able to recoup the upfront investments for patients, Bai pointed out.
YC-200 in action
Although the capital market in China seems to be caught up in an unrelenting downward spiral, with mounting financing difficulties for startups, Yunchuang’s fundraising efforts so far has fared swimmingly.
cnrobopedia reported earlier that the firm had completed three rounds of funding since last year, counting big names like NIO Capital and Baidu.venture among its backers.
Bai said the firm’s financial goal is to break even next year and pursue an IPO in 2027. He didn’t say which stock exchange was prefered.
From China, to the world
In light of the huge market room abroad, overseas expansion has always been high up on Yunchuang’s agenda, especially in many Western countries, where the demographic decline is steeper.
The CEO argued that regions with high wages and an inclement outdoor work environment, such as Singapore and the Middle East, will likely be the first destinations, to be followed by Europe and North America.
But before going global, the company is poised to keep iterating its products to weed out deficiencies, he said.
One of its main focuses is to build a more compact data closed loop and reduce its reliance on high-precision maps and cloud data support, so as to achieve greater ease of use and faster pace of deployment.