Crunch time for China’s robotic startups as pandemic brings ache and alternatives

By David Kirton

SHENZHEN, China (Reuters) – With glowing blue eyes and trusting feline options, a brand new robotic cat by Chinese language startup Elephant Robotics appears fortunately oblivious to the troubles of CEO Joey Music as he exhibits it off on the firm’s lab in Shenzhen.

Elephant Robotics’ principal enterprise is the automation of manufacturing unit meeting strains however income has plunged by a 3rd this 12 months because of the coronavirus, main the corporate to chop workers by a fifth.

“It is powerful,” mentioned Music. “Earlier than, we had greater than 30 individuals.”

As a result of downturn, the agency is placing extra power into the robotic cat mission funded on Kickstarter in December. Readying its first giant batch of 1,000 cats on the market, it hopes that as extra shoppers work at home, curiosity in pet robots will develop.

“If the economic robots cannot promote proper now, we simply give attention to different robots to decrease the dangers,” Music mentioned.

Curiosity in robots has surged worldwide because the pandemic forces hospitals, manufacturing and providers firms in addition to governments to look afresh and with new urgency at methods to minimise human contact.

However in China, months forward of many nations in reopening its economic system and the world’s greatest marketplace for industrial robots, new enterprise appears largely restricted to robots for warehouses and disinfecting. Most purchasers are actually too spooked by the unsure enterprise local weather to spend money on costly manufacturing unit gear, trade executives say.

“Automation ought to be a method to battle virus penalties however on the opposite facet if you wish to make investments, it is advisable know the market forecasts,” mentioned Vincent Bury, managing director at tools maker CNIM China. “No person has a crystal ball now.”

China’s industrial robotic gross sales tumbled by a fifth within the first quarter from a 12 months earlier, in response to Shanghai-based consultancy Stieler Enterprise. It predicts second-quarter gross sales will probably decline 15{5667a53774e7bc9e4190cccc01624aae270829869c681dac1da167613dca7d05}.

Whereas the ache is being felt broadly, main gamers in China corresponding to Switzerland’s ABB <ABBN.S>, Japan’s Yaskawa Electrical Corp <6506.T> and Germany’s Kuka AG <KU2G.DE> are anticipated to climate the storm.

However for home robotic startups which have hitched their prospects to a broad shift inside Chinese language manufacturing to extra automated manufacturing unit strains, the remainder of this 12 months might be make or break. Entry to contemporary funding is tight as enterprise capitalists wait to see which companies will survive the rapid downturn.

“We would love to attend for one more one or two months (earlier than investing) to see how they’ve recovered, whether or not it may get again to regular,” mentioned the vice chairman of an funding agency with a number of pursuits in China’s robotics trade.

He declined to be recognized to guard enterprise relationships.


For startups that both concentrate on or have managed to pivot to cleansing or warehouse-related robots, prospects have turn into brighter after greater than a month of lockdown disrupted China’s provide chains and made fulfilling orders difficult.

“We’re struggling, fortunately struggling,” mentioned Lawrence Han, chief expertise officer at Triooo, a maker of business cleansing robots backed by Taiwan’s Foxconn <2317.TW> and primarily based within the high-tech hub of Shenzhen. “I feel our product was delayed by virtually three months.”

Triooo is working to clear a backlog of orders and hopes to finally promote in Western markets the place its robots, utilized in locations like hospitals and airports, are less expensive resulting from greater labour prices there.

Beijing-based Geek+, a maker of robots that transport and stack items in warehouses, opened its San Diego workplace in February simply as provide chains in China floor to a halt. After three months of uncertainty, it immediately noticed demand soar because the unfold of the virus spurred shoppers to shift most of their purchasing on-line, mentioned Mark Messina, chief working officer of Geek+ Americas.

At Youibot, which specialises in robots for energy stations and furnaces, the outbreak prompted the corporate to develop a robotic that may patrol public areas, scanning physique temperatures and emitting a virus-killing ultraviolet mild when individuals are not round.

The Shenzhen-based startup has discovered patrons in Italy, Singapore and Turkey, whereas the American Institute of Minimally Invasive Surgical procedure can be trialling a batch.

“This product’s greatest worth to us is that it offers us expertise deploying robots abroad and gives us with alternative ways for our enterprise to develop,” mentioned Youibot CEO Cody Zhang.

(Reporting by David Kirton; Modifying by Brenda Goh and Edwina Gibbs)

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