China Invests in Robotics

Article By : Rick Merritt, EE Times

Investments and revenues in robotics are on the rise, particularly for emerging collaborative and mobile systems, an analyst said.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Robots are on the rise with “massive growth” in venture investments and steeper revenue growth projected beyond 2020. Experts foresee long-term markets rise and prices decline as China’s factories start making and consuming more automated systems.

Industrial robots will see “strong growth after 2020, due to their proliferation in Asia and the availability of more low-cost, high-quality systems,” said Dan Kara, research director for robotics at market watcher ABI Research, forecasting China will overtake the U.S. as the largest market in a few years.

Robotics used to be all about precision actuators made mainly in “Germany, Japan and Switzerland, but now China is catching up and systems increasingly will be made with smart software so you don’t need those pricey actuators,” Kara said in a talk at the RoboBusiness event he helped found here.

Overall, ABI Research projects sales of more than half a million industrial robots a year by 2020, up from about 360,000 last year. China will drive up the growth curve so sales break a million units a year in 2025, he said.

Seeing the potential, VC spending in robotics saw “a massive amount of growth” in 2015 that continues through this year, Kara said. The money split across about a dozen areas with the largest slice in software followed by sensors.

Lidar, widely used in the latest systems, had been a hot spot for investors. Indeed, two lidar makers — Quanergy and Velodyne — had the largest deals at $90 and $150 million, respectively.


VC investment in robotics tripled in 2015 with software taking the biggest slice of the pie Click to enlarge. (Charts: ABI Research)


Collaborative and mobile robots are hot sectors. The mobile systems careen around a manufacturing floor or warehouse in form factors ranging from small stools to large forklifts.

The collaborative systems typically use some form of machine learning software to learn how to work together. For example, Fanuc’s latest Edge products for factories use software from Preferred Networks. “Within a few hours, robots pick up and feed material to other robots as fast as humans can,” said Kara.

This sort of machine learning is the latest phase of robotics software. The prior generation of bots learned from humans who would demonstrate actions and before that human operators had to program directions in software.

Collaborative robots will become a billion-dollar market by 2020 with sales of more than 50,000 systems a year and declining unit prices, Kara predicted. The mobile robots are so strategic that Amazon makes its own units to serve its warehouses, although a handful of startups are already gaining traction.


Collaborative robots will see a steep uptake. Click to enlarge. (Charts: ABI Research)

Among other sectors, wearable exoskeletons represent a small market with big potential. Kara identified dozens of use cases in the sector that could see sales of as many as 2.6 million units/year, more than half of them in farming.

Use cases for consumer robots however are “not yet clear” beyond the popular vacuums and pool cleaners, he said. Voice assistants such as Alexa “will be most impactful” in the home, he added.


Consumer robots will see a less dramatic rise. Click to enlarge.

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