New Industrial Revolution
Taiwan’s burgeoning robotics sector is seeking to carve out a niche in the global market.
The increasing diversity of technologies on display at the Taiwan Automation Intelligence and Robot Show in recent years evinces the growing strength of the domestic robotics sector. At the 2015 edition of the trade fair, held from July 16 to 19 at the Taipei World Trade Center’s Nangang Exhibition Hall, the nation’s leading tech companies and research institutes showcased a huge variety of robots, ranging from entertainment and service devices to towering manufacturing machines. The July event attracted around 63,000 local and foreign industry representatives, marking a 10 percent increase from the previous year. And while many visitors made some time to check out the creative humanoid entertainment bots, the vast majority of people in attendance had come to explore how advanced industrial machines are set to revolutionize manufacturing.
“These robots are the driving force behind the technological transformation of the industrial sector,” says Eric Chuo (卓永財), chairman of the Taiwan Automation Intelligence and Robotics Association (TAIROA), which co-organizes the annual trade fair in conjunction with the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA). “A nation’s ability to take advantage of these devices, as well as its research and development [R&D] capabilities in this field, will be the major determinant of its industrial competitiveness over the next five decades.” Chuo is also the chairman of Hiwin Technologies Corp., the world’s second-largest supplier of motion control devices, key components of automation systems.
The growth of Taiwan’s robotics industry has been fueled by rising international demand and extensive government-industry-academia collaboration. Figures released by the MOEA show that the production value of the sector rose from NT$45 billion (US$1.45 billion) in 2010 to NT$55.4 billion (US$1.79 billion) in 2014, and is projected to reach NT$58.4 billion (US$1.88 billion) this year. Industrial robots, including related components, comprise an approximately 90 percent share of the sector, while service robots make up the remaining 10 percent, MOEA statistics show.
Since the mid-2000s, the government has introduced a range of financial assistance schemes to promote the development of robotics technologies. In particular, the MOEA has sponsored a number of R&D projects on intelligent automation at the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), a government-supported applied research organization, and the Precision Machinery Research and Development Center (PMC), an industry body.
Intelligent automation is the integration of hardware, software and technical services to create machines that can perform a variety of tasks through a cycle of sensing, processing, reasoning and reacting. These systems are valued over traditional manufacturing machines because they can be reprogrammed to perform different functions.
Kuo Tzu-hsin (郭子鑫), director of the Intelligent Robotics Technology Division at ITRI’s Mechanical and Systems Research Laboratories, explains that government support for intelligent automation research initially centered on service robots, but the focus started shifting to industrial machines in 2010 in response to growing demand. “In the late 2000s, many Taiwanese companies operating locally and in mainland China began to experience severe labor shortages or rising wage costs,” he says. “So firms started incorporating robotics systems into their production lines.”
Furthermore, the manufacturing paradigm in Taiwan has evolved in recent years from the mass production of uniform goods to small-volume runs of advanced products. This trend, which is especially apparent in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, is a significant driver of local demand for intelligent automation systems.
The global market has long been dominated by a few players, including Germany’s Kuka Robotics, Japan’s Fanuc Corp. and Yaskawa Electric Corp., and Switzerland’s ABB Robotics. These firms primarily produce robots for the automobile, steel and other heavy manufacturing industries. Taiwanese robotics firms, therefore, are seeking to carve out a niche by targeting producers of ICT products, Kuo notes.
To date, ITRI has developed delta robots, which consist of three arms connected to a single end effector and are used in precision manufacturing, and Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm (SCARA) robots, which are designed to mimic the function of a human arm and are commonly used in automated assembly. It has also created six-axis articulated robots and key components like controllers and grippers.
ITRI has already transferred these technologies to more than 20 local firms, including Advantech-LNC Technology Co., Cheng Uei Precision Industry Co. and Hiwin Technologies Corp. The institute also offers consulting, matchmaking and networking services to help local companies cultivate business opportunities and boost their product development.
The high-end robotics systems that his organization has created, Kuo explains, incorporate advanced force and compliance controls as well as vision-guided systems, which help ensure operator safety in human-robot collaborative environments and enable the machines to adapt to variations in the dimensions and locations of components being used in assembly processes. Meanwhile, ITRI’s six-axis articulated robots can reach almost any point within their work envelope. The robotics technologies developed by ITRI are suitable for use in Taiwan’s competitive consumer electronics, food, machine tool and semiconductor industries.
Hsiao Jen-chung (蕭仁忠), director of PMC’s Robotic Automation Division, notes that changes in social conditions in many major manufacturing nations are pushing up demand for industrial automation equipment. “Labor shortages have become widespread not only because of people’s reluctance to take boring, dangerous and dirty jobs, but also because of shrinking workforces due to aging societies,” he says.
According to the Germany-based International Federation of Robotics, around 225,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide in 2014, up 27 percent from 2013. Asian nations, in particular mainland China and South Korea, were the primary sources of this growth. In total, about 140,000 units were sold in Asia last year, by far the highest volume ever recorded in the region.
So far, PMC has developed delta, dual-arm and SCARA robots and transferred these technologies to dozens of Taiwanese companies. The center also organizes the annual Intelligent Robotics Creative Competition for university students to stimulate interest in the field. For this year’s contest, 14 companies, including Advantech-LNC, Delta Electronics Inc. and Hiwin Mikrosystem Corp., part of the Hiwin Group, contributed either prize money or components to the competition. The total value of donated parts exceeded NT$5 million (US$161,290).
Hiwin, which is headquartered in central Taiwan’s Taichung City, was established in 1989 as a producer of precision machinery components such as ball screws and linear guideways. Enid Tsai (蔡惠卿), president of Hiwin Technologies, notes that many of these products are also used in the construction of robots, so the company was well placed to enter the robotics sector.
Over the past decade, Hiwin has succeeded in developing articulated, delta, SCARA and wafer robots. The latter machines are used in semiconductor manufacturing. The firm has also created a variety of components such as grippers and servo motors.
Hiwin works closely with ITRI and PMC on robotics systems development, and has conducted more than 20 research programs with local universities in order to cultivate talent in the field. The company is also heavily involved in TAIROA, which was founded by its chairman, Eric Chuo, in 2011. The association organizes a range of industry activities including lectures and technical exchanges, as well as training and certification programs for automation engineers.
Jerry Chiu (屈岳陵), senior vice president of R&D at Hiwin, notes that there has been considerable discussion in recent years about the impending fourth industrial revolution, also dubbed Industry 4.0, in which complex manufacturing will be performed by highly intelligent cyber-physical systems that can control each other autonomously along the entire production chain. “The significance of the shift to a new manufacturing system—the smart factory—cannot be overemphasized,” he says.
Taiwanese manufacturers, Chiu believes, have a good chance of tapping into the growing intelligent automation market given the country’s well-developed ICT, machine tool and semiconductor industries. However, as relative newcomers to the sector, their biggest challenge is a lack of international brand recognition. Chiu suggests Taiwanese companies establish partnerships to maximize the utilization of local resources.
Michael Kuo (郭倫毓), president of Taichung-based Advantech-LNC, which specializes in producing controllers, notes that his firm formed a strategic alliance with Hiwin last year, and that this partnership has enabled the company to expand its customer base. Similar to Hiwin, his firm started out as a parts supplier for the machine tool industry, but began developing controllers for the industrial robotics sector in 2010 in view of the rising demand. The company succeeded in commercializing its innovations in 2013, and its products are now sold in India, Taiwan, Turkey, mainland China and a number of Southeast Asian countries.
Kuo says that Advantech-LNC enjoys a competitive advantage in the sector due to its ability to create custom-made controllers within one to three months. He is excited about his firm’s plan to release controllers based on Ethernet for Control Automation Technology (EtherCAT) in the fourth quarter of this year, which he confidently predicts will help his company achieve its 2015 sales growth target of 100 percent. EtherCAT is an open, real-time and low-cost communication protocol for industrial automation systems.
Like Chiu, Michael Kuo believes Taiwan’s robotics manufacturers must establish strategic partnerships to boost their international competitiveness. “We should emulate the success of the local machine tool industry by developing a cluster where the up-, mid- and downstream sectors complement each other,” he says. “If we cooperate, I’m confident we’ll be able to gain a strong foothold in the global industrial robotics market.”
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