Technology gap gives foreign firms the edge in China robot wars

admin   •   September 21, 2015   •   97537

A Baxter robot of Rethink Robotics picks up a business card as it performs during a display at the World Economic Forum (WEF), in China's port city Dalian, Liaoning province, China, September 9, 2015. REUTERS/JASON LEE

A Baxter robot of Rethink Robotics picks up a business card as it performs during a display at the World Economic Forum (WEF), in China’s port city Dalian, Liaoning province, China, September 9, 2015.
REUTERS/JASON LEE

In a cavernous showroom on the outskirts of this port city in northeastern China, softly whirring lathes and svelte robot arms represent Dalian Machine Tools Group’s (DMTG) vision of an automated future for Chinese manufacturing.

On closer inspection, however, most of the machines’ control panels bear the logos of Japan’s FANUC Corp or the German conglomerate Siemens.

The imported control systems in DMTG’s products – used in the assembly of everything from smartphones to cement trucks – are symbolic of the technology gap between Chinese and foreign industrial automation firms, just one of several challenges facing China’s ambition to nurture a national robotics industry.

Chinese robotics firms are also grappling with a weakening economy and slumping automotive sector, and industry insiders already predict a market bubble just three years after the central government issued policies to spur robotics development.

“Last year everybody thought they could produce a robot,” said Alan Lee, director of Asia sales and business development at Boston-based Rethink Robotics. “When you have market saturation you’ll have filtering and M&A. These guys will be the first layer to suffer.”

It is a storyline familiar from other new industries such as solar panels: Beijing’s policies and subsides trigger a wave of low-margin, low-cost contenders to rush into the market, where, with no meaningful technology of their own, they struggle to compete on price alone.

A year after analysts predicted the unstoppable advance of Chinese robot makers, executives at foreign companies now say they are well-positioned to weather any temporary blip in demand as manufacturers tighten capital investment while waiting to see how China’s economy fares.

ROBOTICS EXPLOSION

To be sure, foreign or domestic executives alike say they believe in China’s commitment to upgrade its manufacturing sector and the potential of the domestic robot industry to grow into a leading force in the long run.

With wages rising as much as 10 percent a year, Chinese policymakers have said they fear labor shortages of as high as 30 percent in some areas and are keen to help automation along.

Chinese-made robots deployed have surged from an estimated 3,000 in 2012, when the central government began introducing automated manufacturing proposals, to 15,000 last year, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

The growth rate for foreign-made robots has been slower, but they still dominate Chinese factory floors, with numbers increasing from 22,000 to 41,000, during the same period.

Subsidies have sparked an explosion in the number of Chinese robotics firms from 200 to around 815 in two years, according to OFWeek, a Chinese robot industry news site and research center.

But at most 30 of those firms have done any meaningful research and development, said Wang Baomin, senior analyst at Shenzhen-based consulting firm MIR Industry.

“Companies that get subsidies through connections are cruising without feeling any competition or fully grasping the technology,” said Wang.

“I’m afraid robots will walk down the path of China’s solar industry, with its market development distorted.”

Xu Wenjiu, an executive at Shenzhen-based robot maker LEN, expects a third of domestic robot firms to collapse within three years because many do not have the ability to offer after-market maintenance for products that break down.

TECHNOLOGY GAP

Foreign robot makers are sanguine about the profusion of Chinese rivals – at least for now.

Gu Chunyuan, the China head of Zurich-based ABB Robotics, a leading robotics firm along with the likes of Germany’s Kuka and Japan’s Yaskawa, downplayed the threat of Chinese competition, saying his firm held a significant technological advantage.

The company also ships many “naked” robots to Chinese firms who resell a customized final product to factories.

In Dalian, DTMG’s president, Ma Junqing, acknowledged there was an “obvious gap” between Chinese firms and foreign competitors in robot and automation technology.

But he said his firm, which specializes in automated machine tools, had been making advanced robot arms for only three years and hoped to catch up with Japanese rivals in three years and German competitors within five.

“The complete product chain takes a long time, as does researching technology and developing the market,” said Ma, whose firm has longstanding government links and receives subsidies and loans.

Still, domestic firms like Shanghai Siasun Robot & Automation are seen as making advances in robot technology, while companies like DMTG and rival Shenyang Machine Tool Co are investing to expand beyond traditional machine tools into more sophisticated products.

Rethink Robotics’ founder Rodney Brooks, who has consulted for local Chinese governments, predicted that the champion of Chinese robotics may emerge from an unexpected quarter, given the level of investment and technology required.

He named e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, which has invested in robotics with hardware manufacturer Foxconn and Softbank, as a contender, much like how Amazon Inc has become a major robotics player in the United States.

“It may not be the traditional players but the transformation is still going to happen in China,” Brooks said.

(Reporting by Gerry Shih and Beijing newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson)

China condemns approval of US bill on Hong Kong human rights

Robie de Guzman   •   November 20, 2019

China on Wednesday condemned the approval by the United States Senate of a Hong Kong human rights and democracy bill, which could serve to punish officials that undermine the rights of the inhabitants of the special administrative region.

The Senate unanimously approved the Hong Kong human rights and democracy bill on Tuesday, which could empower the US government to sanction officials responsible for rights violations and provide for annual review as to whether Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for special trade considerations.

The House of Representatives approved its own version last month and the two will have to work out differences before the legislation can be sent to President Donald Trump for consideration.

China’s government reacted angrily to the news.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang in a statement said: “This act neglects facts and truth, applies double standards and blatantly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs.

“It is in serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations. China condemns and firmly opposes it.”

In a separate statement, the foreign ministry said it had summoned US Embassy official William Klein to lodge a formal complaint.

Beijing warned of reprisals if Trump pushes the policy through.

“The issue Hong Kong faces is not about human rights or democracy, but about stopping violence and chaos, upholding rule of law and restoring order as soon as possible,” Geng said.

The spokesperson reiterated China’s support to the Hong Kong government and police “in enforcing law, and support the judicial organs in punishing violent criminals, protecting the life and property of citizens and safeguarding prosperity and stability in Hong Kong.”

China believes the approval of the bill exposes the US’ “hidden political agenda” and “paints criminal moves as pursuit of human rights and democracy when the truth is violent criminals rampantly smashed facilities, set fire, bullied and attacked innocent civilians, forcibly occupied university campuses, mobbed young students, and assaulted police officers in a premeditated way.”

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, young anti-government activists were staying put inside the Polytechnic University campus, as their bitter standoff with the city’s police force entered its fourth day.

Between Monday night and Wednesday morning, about 800 people stranded in the Polytechnic University had left the campus in the harbor-side district of Hung Hom in East Kowloon. Among them, 300 were under the age of 18. Exactly how many more are still inside is unclear, but Hong Kong’s Commercial Radio put the number at around 100.

It is believed that hundreds of people who have left the campus — many of them students — have been arrested, although the police have yet to announce the exact number.

Shortly before noon Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security John Lee spoke to journalists, saying that all those inside PolyU would be arrested for rioting regardless of the purpose of their assembly on the campus.

In Hong Kong, rioting carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. A law scholar who visited the activists Monday night told them they could not be charged for rioting so long as there was not enough evidence against them.

The siege, which has been keeping many Hongkongers on edge, began in the evening Sunday, a violent day in which anti-government protesters, armed with countless Molotov cocktails and bricks, were locked in violent street battles with riot police who fired tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds at crowds.

On Wednesday morning, some netizens called for people to paralyze the city’s traffic. Some activists blocked the doors of underground trains to prevent them from moving, while services at some metro stations were suspended but later resumed.

Demonstrations in Hong Kong began in June following a controversial extradition bill, since withdrawn by the government, but have mutated into a movement seeking to improve Hong Kong’s democratic mechanisms and opposition to Beijing’s perceived interference.

The demonstrations have turned into a movement seeking to improve democracy in the city-state and safeguard the region’s partial autonomy from Beijing. EFE -EPA

jco-sl/jot

China lifts almost 5-year ban on import of US poultry

Robie de Guzman   •   November 15, 2019

Chickens are seen in a barn at Todd Chapman’s poultry farm in Clermont, Georgia, USA. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER

BEIJING – China has lifted import restrictions on poultry products from the United States after nearly five years, according to the General Administration of Customs and the Ministry of Agriculture.

In January 2015, China banned the import of chicken and poultry products from the US to protect itself from bird flu that had been recorded in some areas of America in 2013 and 2014.

According to a joint statement by the two Chinese bodies, the US took active and preventive measures following the bird flu outbreak, and that no fresh cases had been reported since March 2017.

A team of Chinese experts visited the US in July 2017 on Washington’s invitation to conduct on-the-spot assessments of measures against bird flu, the statement said.

In May 2018, the two countries held consultations on the subject, and after a full assessment, China considered the bird flu epidemic in the US to be effectively under control, and poultry regulation systems were compliant with Chinese legal requirements.

The statement said that following the lifting of US import restrictions, Chinese poultry imports would expand to effectively respond to market demands.

According to US trade authorities, the end of the import ban would result in the export of poultry products worth more than $1 billion to China annually.

Moreover, China has been facing a meat shortage following an outbreak of African swine fever, which has led to the culling of millions of pigs in the country, affecting the supply of pork, a preferred food item among the Chinese. – EFE-EPA

jg/sc/tw

Robredo: Majority of illegal drugs in PH came from China

Aileen Cerrudo   •   November 15, 2019

Vice President Leni Robredo

Vice President Leni Robredo who is also the co-chairman of the government’s anti-illegal drug program, said that the majority of the illegal drugs in the country came from China.

After the Inter-agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD) Enforcement Cluster Meeting on Thursday (November 14), Robredo said this is based on the reports they currently have.

“Kasi iyong pinaka-report talaga sa atin ngayon, karamihan sa supply na pumapasok dito, galing China. Pati iyon mga nahuhuli sa ma nago-operate within the Philippines, karamihan Chinese nationals or Filipino-Chinese national (Because based on the reports we have, most of the supply entering the country came from China. Even those who are arrested for operating in the Philippines, most of them are Chinese nationals or Filipino-Chinese nationals),” she said.

The vice president also said she wants to collect more data and review the information they have gathered regarding the supply of illegal drugs entering the country.

However, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Chief Aaron Aquino the drugs entering the country came from the Golden Triangle Drug Syndicate.

The Golden Triangle, Aquino said, is an area on the border of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos.

Aquino added that due to the crackdown of illegal drugs in China, drug syndicates in the said country opted to get their supply from other places instead of manufacturing it.

Meanwhile, Robredo also plans to coordinate with other countries including the United States regarding the drug war in order to strengthen the government’s campaign against illegal drugs.—AAC (with reports from Vincent Arboleda)

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