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.
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.
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.
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)