Visitors watch a demonstration of industrial robots made by ABB Ltd at an expo in Shanghai. (Provided: China Daily)
ABB Ltd, the Switzerland-based technology company, will produce more industrial and service robots in China that can be used in the new energy vehicle, 5G, consumer electronics and healthcare sectors in the post-pandemic era, according to a senior executive.
"COVID-19 is the single greatest catalyst for change in the industry in a generation, forcing our customers to reassess their priorities, but the global lockdown itself has not started any new trends on its own," said Sami Atiya, president of ABB's robotics and discrete automation business.
He said the pandemic has accelerated four megatrends that will fundamentally change the face of manufacturing in the long term－the individualized consumer, labor shortages, uncertainty and digitalization.
"China's 'new infrastructure' initiative presents exciting opportunities for global companies. It is clear that many of our customers in different sectors need to enhance their manufacturing capability, such as new energy vehicles, railway, 5G equipment, logistics and healthcare," said Atiya, who is also a member of ABB's group executive committee.
The group has been turning many of these factors into growth opportunities and providing solutions to customers in various sectors by partnering with domestic players such as cargo container producer China International Marine Containers (Group) Ltd, high-speed train manufacturer CRRC Qingdao Sifang Co Ltd, heavy truck manufacturer China National Heavy Duty Truck Group and 5G technology provider Huawei Technologies Co Ltd.
In addition to putting more resources into both China's services trade and manufacturing sectors in the coming years, Atiya said the company will start to run new robotics factories in Shanghai next year. Designed to produce 100,000 industrial and service-function robots a year－about a quarter of the world's total production capacity in 2019－the plant's products will not only serve the Chinese market but also the overseas markets.
The new factory－with a comprehensive research and development center－will become a key part of ABB's global robotics supply system, together with the company's recently upgraded factory in Vasteras, Sweden, and its factory in Michigan, the United States, according to the Zurich-headquartered company.
"As well as our production facility that will serve China and the global markets, we will have a research and development center that will accelerate digital innovation and advances in artificial intelligence," he said, adding the company will produce more robots to serve the surging demand in China's logistics, food and beverage, pharmaceuticals and educational sectors.
Atiya said ABB's consumer segment and service robotics business began with a focus on logistics and warehouse automation, both within its customers' factories (intralogistics) and for shipping and logistics centers for various applications.
Apart from running a new healthcare research hub in Houston, Texas, to develop the next-generation nonsurgical automated laboratory processes with collaborative robots and automation technologies for medical laboratories and hospitals, medical logistics and warehousing, ABB has cooperated with hospitals in Shanghai to create a flexible pharmacy automation system to enhance its inpatient pharmacy.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, despite slowing growth in the shipment of industrial robots worldwide, collaborative industrial robots, known as "cobots", are expected to become a growth engine for the industrial robots sector, and China will take center stage in the new trend.
Such products are designed to physically interact with humans in a shared workspace, in contrast to most industrial robots used nowadays, which are often seen sitting behind safety barriers at factories, said Zhao Ying, a researcher at the Beijing-based Institute of Industrial Economics, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
He said ability of "cobots" to collaborate with humans is more suitable for meeting the needs of industries with more specific, flexible or personal requirements.