Japanese robot maker taps China’s demand for automation

Local partner crucial as Yaskawa Electric leads the way for other makers

YURI MASUDA, Nikkei staff writer

TOKYO — As China’s production lines become increasingly automated, several Japanese industrial robot makers have established partnerships with local players, eager to increase their presence in the world’s largest manufacturing market.

Since 2015, Yaskawa Electric, one of the top four global players in the field, has been jointly developing automation systems with Guangdong-based home appliances maker Midea Group.

Having achieved the initial goal of automating Midea’s factories, the two partners have begun selling the systems to other manufacturers.

“China is home to massive production sites, and we see promising demand in the shift from manual-centered production to automation,” said the executive who heads Yaskawa’s China operation.

The Japanese maker now aims to modify the systems developed for Midea in order to meet the needs of other manufacturers.

Some of the processes that have been automated include packing refrigerators into cardboard boxes and the assembly of dish washers. The two companies are also looking to provide systems for processes that are required across the manufacturing sector, such as bagging components.

Midea Group’s wide sales and procurement networks have been invaluable in helping to understand the country’s automation needs, said Yaskawa’s President Hiroshi Ogasawara, who has high hopes for the synergy between Yaskawa’s technologies and Midea’s marketing know-how. The Chinese company logs in the region of $24 billion in sales annually.

The two partners have begun selling the systems to other home appliance makers and Chinese subsidiaries of Japanese auto manufacturers.

Yaskawa has also established a joint venture with Shenzhen Everwin Precision Technology to develop robotics for smartphone manufacturing.

China accounted for about 30% of global industrial-robot sales by unit in 2015, according to the International Federation of Robotics. The proportion is expected to reach 40% by 2019.

Japan exported 147 billion yen ($1.31 billion) worth of industrial robots during the July-September quarter. Roughly half of that was destined for China, suggesting that the market will have a significant bearing on the success of Japanese robot makers.

The increasing demand for automation in China is partly down to rising wages and a labor shortfall in the manufacturing sector. More importantly, however, many Chinese manufacturers want to leverage the expertise of Japanese companies to upgrade production quality and become globally competitive.

“We can now provide components that are cheaper than those of our American competitors but of the same quality,” said an executive of a Chinese company that supplies products to the U.S. market. The business said it is receiving a growing number of orders.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries has also been manufacturing its two-armed industrial robot duAro in China with a local partner. They expect to produce 1,000 or so units during the year through March 2018.  “We believe automation demand could expand to offices and shops, too,” said Yasuhiko Hashimoto, who heads Kawasaki Heavy’s robot business center.

Fanuc, another global leader in robotics, has begun providing services in China with a local partner, but intends to keep production in Japan.



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