SME Spotlight

SME Spotlight: Paving the way for the rise of robots)

Unitech's Dr Xia sees many applications for robotics. For now, his company remains focused on the food and beverage industry, while it explores opportunities to help large manufacturers automate their processes.
Unitech's Dr Xia sees many applications for robotics. For now, his company remains focused on the food and beverage industry, while it explores opportunities to help large manufacturers automate their processes.ST PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Unitech Mechatronics has been in the robotics industry for a decade. In the third of a four-part series on small and medium-sized enterprises in the robotics space, company founder James Xia, 50, tells Wong Wei Han how his company has embraced the opportunities and navigated the challenges as the Government pushes for the wider use of automation technology.

Q Please tell us Unitech's market offerings and its origin.

A Unitech is a technology company specialising in robotics and automation solutions, with a focus on the food and beverage sectors.

Some people might have seen a robot waiter buzzing around at the Chilli Padi restaurant near the National University of Singapore (NUS). That Unibot is part of our flagship product line.

A big part of our business also deals with the hardware and software of point-of-sale systems in restaurants - basically these are terminals that you use to order your meal.

I established the company in 2006 out of my interest in robotics. The same interest brought me from Beijing - where I had worked at China's national aerospace agency - to Singapore in the 1990s to pursue a PhD in robotics control at NUS.

Q How did the company fare in the beginning?

A One of the very first products we made was what we called the CareBot. It was something that we built for domestic help and elderly care. When the gas stove was not turned off or an elderly person slipped and fell, it could send a warning to a designated person.

Unfortunately, the product line was not widely adopted. The price of around $3,000 proved too hefty for consumers then. For several years we had to scale back and rely more on restaurant point-of-sale solutions for business.

But around 2013, as the Government started to campaign for a wider use of robotics in industries suffering from manpower shortage, we decided it was time to go back into the market with our Unibots, which we had started exploring in 2012 and are now in their third version.

Q What did you do to ensure greater success this time?

A We put a lot more effort into research and development to improve our robots. This was in response to some of the feedback that we had heard through the years.

Restaurants and shops in Singapore do not have a lot of space, so first of all, a robot has to be smaller. Also, because of the tight space, navigation is another area that it needs to be good at.

To overcome these problems, we upgraded the robots with the ability to identify and avoid obstacles autonomously. We also came up with a way to remove the need for magnetic tracks that older robots had to rely on for movement. Now our robots are guided by, for instance, landmarks installed on the ceiling.

Just as importantly, we realised that the robots can be more effective and cost-efficient as a product if they focus on doing one thing instead of many. So now Unibots specialise in collecting and clearing dishes.

Q How is the company performing now?

A Unitech remains a very small company, with about five people. In terms of business volume, we have sold a handful of Unibots. Our other IT and automation business still accounts for the bulk of our revenue.

Last year, our turnover was about $500,000, less than the $800,000 in 2014. This was partly because of the robot R&D I mentioned earlier, which cost us over $200,000 and took quite a bit off our earnings.

But this was a risk that we needed to take.

Q So the robotics market remains challenging?

A There are several factors at play. Just as it was in the past, many restaurants are not yet willing to be early adopters of robotics due partly to cost concerns. The Government has done its bit to encourage adoption - for instance around 70 per cent of our robots' cost is subsidised - but the take-up remains slow.

There's also the issue of customers expecting too much out of their robotic investments.

They want the robots to do many things and do them well without disrupting normal operations. Unfortunately, this is a bit unrealistic at this point.

Meanwhile, the cost of R&D is a burden to small companies. To some extent, there are government grants that can help us, and we certainly have benefited from schemes such as iSprint by the Infocomm Media Development Authority.

If you ask me, I can only say that while the use of robots is becoming a trend in Singapore, how this trend can benefit companies and who will benefit the most remain unclear.

Q What are you planning for the future then?

A Diversification and market expansion is our strategy going forward. While we continue to push for a greater footprint in the food and beverage industry here, we're also in talks with several large manufacturers to explore how robots can help their factories automate. We already have an office in China.

Despite the challenges, I'm still positive about the industry's future - and Unitech's future. The fact remains that robotics can be applied in many areas and many places. It'll take time, but I think we'll get there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'Paving the way for the rise of robots'. Print Edition | Subscribe