China wants to send more robots to work

A robot simulating the use of a medical instrument at the World Robot Conference. China seeks to widen the use of robots due to an ageing workforce and rising labour costs.
A robot simulating the use of a medical instrument at the World Robot Conference. China seeks to widen the use of robots due to an ageing workforce and rising labour costs.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • More than 2,000 contestants from over 10 countries and regions are in Beijing to showcase China's growing robot industry at the five-day 2016 World Robot Conference (WRC), as the country seeks to widen the use of robots commercially due to an ageing workforce and rising labour costs.

According to statistics released by the Qianzhan Industry Research Institute, the output value of China's home-grown robots last year stood at 1.64 billion yuan (S$338 million), a year-on-year increase of 55 per cent, the Xinhua news agency reported.

At the conference, Vice-Premier Liu Yandong called for more work to be done to increase international collaborations and enhance government policies to develop the robotics industry.

Among the inventions featured at the WRC, which kicked off on Friday, was an orange "fish" called SmartTuna, which can spot holes in underwater pipelines and alert workers on shore to fix the holes.

"Sometimes it's dangerous to go down into the water, so we developed the robot," said one of the demonstrators.

China accounted for about a quarter of robot sales globally last year , making the country the biggest market for industrial robots for three consecutive years.

Industrial robots were well represented at this year's WRC. According to the organiser, industrial robots account for about 40 per cent of all robots on display at the show, while the rest are service robots and specialised robots.

At one booth, a robot named Alan was meandering the aisles on wheels.

Its developer, Robot4u Technology, told Xinhua that Alan was trying to familiarise itself with its environment.

"After it remembers all the routes, you can control it through orders," said one staff member.

"Alan can perform a lot of tasks, such as cooking, picking up garbage and even sewing."

The company said it has already received orders worth more than 100 million yuan this year.

The Chinese market for industrial robots is huge. According to the China Robot Industry Association, 68,000 industrial robots were sold in China last year, up 20 per cent compared to the same period of 2014.

China accounted for about a quarter of robot sales globally last year, making the country the biggest market for industrial robots for three consecutive years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 23, 2016, with the headline 'China wants to send more robots to work'. Print Edition | Subscribe