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)
Chinese scientists first discover spider species breastfeeding, nursing
Spider babies eating milk on bellies of spider mothers | REUTERS
Chinese scientists discovered a spider species that feeds their babies with milk as mammals, marking the first time humans discovering invertebrates breastfeeding and nursing theirs offspring, said Chinese Academy of Sciences Friday.
Breastfeeding is a unique animal behavior to mammals, including humans. This type of spider, commonly known as big ant spider, discovered with “breastfeeding behavior”, belongs to Myrmarachne of Salticidae, which is a spider species widely distributed in the tropical and subtropical regions of East and Southeast Asia.
“Spider babies which just hatched out clime up on spider moms’ bellies, to eat a kind of liquid (secreted by spider moms), which was tested to be milk containing four times the protein of cow’s milk. We call it spider milk,” said Chen Zhanqi, a post doctor from Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Researchers found after long-term observation that the newly hatched spider babies feed themselves entirely with the milk in the first 20 days after birth, during which they grow as big as half of their mothers. From 20 to 40 days, spider babies go out looking for food by themselves, while also eating milk from their mothers. This period is a transition for weaning.
The study also found that spider babies don’t leave their mothers after weaning, and continue to stay with them in nests, even after they grow up. This kind of spider will take care of its grown-up offspring, which is seen as a long parental behavioral mode. This mode was once thought to only exist in the social vertebrates with long lifespan.
Experts believe that this breakthrough discovery has extremely important significance for the research on revolution of breastfeeding behavior for contemporary animals. — Reuters
People worried as China’s capital blanket by pollution
A building in smog in Beijing, China | REUTERS
A total of 79 Chinese cities have triggered air pollution alerts as severe winter smog covers wide swaths of the country, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Saturday (December 1).
China’s capital Beijing issued its first air pollution alert for the winter season on Nov. 23, and it has again issued a yellow alert, the third-highest in its pollution warning system from Saturday (December 1).
Beijing was visibly clouded in smog on Sunday (December 2), and residents were not happy, but many seem resigned to the constant recurrence.
As of Nov.30, five cities had issued red pollution warnings, the most severe in China’s pollution warning system, 73 had issued orange warnings, the second-most severe, and on issued yellow, triggering the implementation of emergency management and control measures, Xinhua reported.
China has taken steps to broaden its campaign against air pollution, including extending a monthly air quality ranking to 169 cities from 74 to pressure local authorities to clean up dirty skies. — Reuters
China’s first private WiFi satellite meets public
WiFi satellite | CCTV via REUTERS
China’s first private WiFi satellite met the public in Shanghai on Tuesday.
The satellite “LinkSure No.1,” independently developed by LinkSure Network, a Shanghai-based mobile internet unicorn company specializing in free internet access, will be launched into space together with the Long March rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China in 2019.
The company also launched its satellite network program — “LinkSure Swarm Constellation System,” which aims to provide free satellite network around the globe in 2026.
Compared with the already existing networks, the system will be more helpful for areas that are uncovered by Internet.
“There are still many places in the world still uncovered by the Internet. According to information released by the United Nations last year, 3.9 billion users had no access to the Internet by the end of 2017. The Earth has many different terrains like ocean or dessert, where Internet infrastructure cannot be constructed, so we got the idea of developing such satellites,” said Wang Jingying, CEO of LinkSure Networks.
The system plans to launch the first 10 WiFi satellites in 2020. The entire system, consisting of 272 satellites of different orbits at different heights, will finally cover the whole world.
Wang said it is costly to launch so many satellites, but what the LinkSure Networks eyes is the broad application prospect of the system in communication, navigation, environment monitoring and other areas.
“Such a satellite plan is actually very costly in the early stage. Our own budget is three billion yuan (about 431 million U.S. dollars). We believe it will pay off, with many scenes, many applications and different modes,” said Wang.
Wang’s view was echoed by Huang Zhicheng, an aerospace technology expert.
“Aerospace programs have high risks and need big investment. Programs that you can see return in three to five years are very few. So patience is very important,” said Huang. — Reuters