The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 compelled the manufacturing industry to move towards a future of digitization and automation that attempts to reduce labor associated with production and operation. In light of this shift, the use of industrial robots quickly expanded from its earlier applications in the automotive industry to other industries, particularly pharmaceutical production and healthcare, which have grown rapidly in demand in the post-pandemic era.
The Chinese market, more specifically, has seen remarkable growths in industrial robot production, from just under 30,000 units in October 2020 to 45,000 units subsequently, according to TrendForce’s latest investigations. As of March 2021, about 30,000 industrial units were produced each month. In addition, annual sale of industrial robots in 2020 reached about 170,000 units, a 15% YoY increase. Non-automotive industries, namely, the electronics industry and the metal fabrication industry (which spans robotic machining, freight manufacturing, and rail manufacturing), accounted for about 70% of industrial robot sales in China.
While labor costs in China gradually increased, the corresponding cost advantages associated with domestic production underwent a corresponding decline. As such, industrial robots, the production of which began approaching economies of scale, became one of the key drivers of the Chinese manufacturing industry’s shift towards high-end, advanced manufacturing. Companies such as Estun, STEP, GSK, and Inovance have been either increasing their R&D funding or acquiring other companies in order to raise their technological competencies, and their efforts have been accelerating China’s goal of “domestically manufactured substitutes”.
Articulated robots and home appliances are, in order, the two most prevalent applications of industrial robots
In the industrial robot market, articulated robots comprise the most widely adopted option. Articulated robots are primarily used across three industries, namely, automotive, metal fabrication, and home appliances segments. SCARA robots, on the other hand, represent the other mainstream type of industrial robot and are mainly used for electronics, li-ion, and PV panel manufacturing. Aside from the two aforementioned options, collaborative robots are also used for manufacturing metal products, ICT products, and consumer electronics.
In the Chinese market, for instance, articulated robots from major foreign suppliers have a significant advantage in the automotive, metal fabrication, and home appliances industries. These suppliers had a 73% share in the heavy payload (>20kg) segment and a 51% share in the light payload (≤20kg) segment in the articulated robot market last year, with ABB, FANUC, KUKA, and Yaskawa possessing most of these market shares.
Relatively, Estun, STEP, Siasun, GSK, and other Chinese industrial robot suppliers were instead focused on cultivating their presence among SMEs in tier 2 and tier 3 cities. These companies’ products are now used across a wide variety of applications in the automotive manufacturing (including automotive components and NEVs), metal fabrication, home appliances, and food/beverages sectors.
In particular, industrial robot-based production lines for whole vehicles have already been deployed for automotive manufacturing industries in these cities. Unlike their foreign competitors, major Chinese suppliers had a 20% market share in the heavy payload (>20kg) segment and 22% market share in the light payload (≤20kg) segment last year. Notably, Chinese suppliers possessed a slight advantage in the latter segment because metal fabrication and home appliances manufacturing, compared to automotive manufacturing, has relatively less stringent requirements regarding product compactness and stability.
（Cover image source: International Federation of Robotics; IFR）