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Robotics' Big Four Players Headline at the 2016 Computex Taipei Show

Next generation of robotics set to be cheaper, lighter and safer say exhibitors at Taiwan's computer automation event.

Photo: Computex Taipei: Intelligent robotics in action. (Xinhua News Agency)
Computex Taipei: Intelligent robotics in action.
Photo: Computex Taipei: Intelligent robotics in action. (Xinhua News Agency)
Computex Taipei: Intelligent robotics in action.

This year's Taipei International Computer Show (Computex Taipei) proved a unique gathering of some of the world's foremost technology giants, including ABB, Acer, Asus, Audi, BenQ, Cooler Master, MSI, Samsung, Siemens and Mercedes-Benz. These industry leaders were all in Taiwan to address the four wide-ranging themes of this year's event – the Internet of Things (IoT), the challenges facing start-ups, smart business solutions and the ongoing evolution of the gaming sector.

One of the more significant sub-sectors to capture the interest of delegates was robotics, with four of the industry's key manufacturers – ABB (Switzerland), Kuka (Germany) and two Japanese businesses, Fanuc and Yasukawa Electric – exhibiting this year. Between them, the four companies hold the lion's share of the 600,000 robotics-related patents, assets that have assured their continuing dominance of their sector. Although many of their current activities are focussed on the mainland market, Taiwan remains a key centre of operations for all four businesses.

Taking the top billing this year was ABB, arguably the world's largest electrical engineering company. Formed in 1988, following the merger of Sweden's Allmänna Svenska Elektriska Aktiebolaget (ASEA) and Switzerland's Brown, Boveri & Cie (BBC), some 33% of its revenue is said to be derived from the robotics sector. Its customer base currently includes two leading Taiwanese businesses – Hon Hai Precision and Casetek, a metal casing plant owned by the Pegatron Corporation.

By comparison, Kuka – a business recently acquired by China's Midea Group – has emerged as one of the leading robotics players in the global automotive sector. With a customer base that includes GM, Porsche, Ferrari and BMW, it is said to be the most profitable concern among the four leading global robotics companies. More locally, its clients include several leading businesses in Taiwan's machine tool sector and a number of metal casing manufacturers.

Industrial robots are now a fixture of factory production lines the world over. These systems are capable of undertaking a variety of functions, including a load-bearing capacity in excess of 100kg. More flexible than conventional equipment and more robust than human operators, such systems have a 360-degree functional facility and can work continuously on a 24-hour basis. They are also ideally suited for operating in environments inimical to human operators, particularly in industries associated with so-called '3-D' – dirty, difficult and dangerous – conditions.

Such robots can now be found in processing plants across the world, carrying out a variety of tasks, including packaging biscuits and pizza ingredients, as well as stacking finished products. They can also work in close proximity with human operators on more intricate tasks, such as integrating iPhone components and assembling Dell computers. Such systems are widely in use across Taiwan, with around 70% of the territory's robotic installations coming courtesy of one of the Big Four players.

At present, all such production lines have a useful life of between two to three years. After this point, obsolescence and excessive wear and tear requires substantial upgrades to be implemented. This inevitably entails considerable investment on the part of many businesses.

In the case of the new generation of robotic systems, however, upgrade costs can be as low as NT$200,000 (US$6,200), with many of the units also relatively compact and low-weight, typically in the 3-10kg range. Their safety protocols also mean they can be used in close proximity to human operatives, with the required shielding and supervisory levels also kept to a minimum.

At present, Taiwan is taking a lead in several robotics-related areas including R&D, particularly with regard to electronic information, precision machinery, moulds and optoelectronics. It has also pioneered the use of intelligent robots in such sectors as finance and the service industries. This has been driven by the tripartite convergence of artificial intelligence, big data analysis and cloud service platforms.

The Taipei International Computer Show (Computex Taipei) 2016 was held from 31 May-4 June at the Taipei International Conference Center and the Taipei Nangang Exhibition Center. More than 1,600 exhibitors from 29 countries and territories attended the event, which also attracted some 130,000 international and local buyers.

Doris Wang, Taiwan Office

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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