I, Kuka

Mr. Kong Bing on the Future of Robotics in China

by CAITLIN WAGGONER

From his start as a robot service engineer in a Nanjing automobile factory more than 20 years ago, to his position today as CEO of KUKA Robotics China, Mr. Kong Bing’s career has developed apace with one of China’s fastest growing industries. Robotics have gone from sci-fi to essential, and industry veterans like Mr. Kong have been first-hand witnesses to the way in which robots are transforming the way we work. German Chamber Ticker spoke to Mr. Kong about the growth in his industry, the way that robotics will affect the labor crunch, and what he think robots will look like a few short years from now.

Who is driving demand for robotics in China?

Our main market remains the automotive industry. Car sales in China are still growing, and there’s potential for a lot more growth, so there’s need for a lot of automation. Not just foreign joint ventures like Shanghai Volkswagen or Daimler, but also local Chinese car OEMs are looking for more and more automation solutions: not only robots but complete systems. This is productivity driven, and all over the country and across all industries we can see this change coming, led by electronics, logistics and consumer groups even above automotive.

Could you tell us what the ratio is of foreign companies versus local companies among your customers?

It’s hard to say how many companies are foreign and which are local! Our biggest customers are still Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW, as well as Taiwanese companies like Foxconn, and other foreign investments in China. Besides that we have a lot of Chinese local customers as well, so it’s difficult to give a percentage.

How much do you expect the robotics market to grow?

We expect 20-25% per year.

That’s amazing growth. Do you see any challenges in this market, or is it just unhindered growth at this point?

The biggest challenge is how to promote the concept of robotics: our end user has to understand what the purpose is of using robots, how you use them, and what the advantage is. A lot of preparation needs to be done in terms of changing people’s mindset. It’s not as simple as just using robots to replace workers. The whole mode of production needs to be changed, so you have to consider how to fulfill all these automation requirements, not only the robots.

How will automation affect the labor market in China?

I think that automation is really the solution to the problem of labor costs. Everyone understands the costs of manpower, and how these costs are growing rapidly every year. This started years ago and will last for several more years. What is making automation into a reality is that everyone is looking for solutions to this. In terms of labor we also need a different kind of thinking. If you’re using machines you have to program all sorts of things like sensors to be able to do anything, but people are more flexible. Just robots alone can’t do every kind of job; you need people who can understand how to manage the whole production process as well as understanding the customers.

Right now most of your clients are in the automotive industry. What other industries do you think will start using robotics in the next few years?

Too many! As I mentioned before, some component suppliers for the automotive industry are already our clients. Then there are electronics, food and beverage, and now we’re coming to the healthcare industry. All kinds of industries are now using robots: we also have some hospitals using Kuka robots.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology published guidelines for the robotics industry in 2013 which seemed to be encouraging local firms to get into robotics. At this point what do you have in terms of local competition?

I think this is a change that we have seen coming since 2013, as you said. We now see annual figures which include some local manufacturers as well. We can see these local companies growing and becoming industry peers, but we believe that this market is big enough for everybody. From my perspective, competition can drive further market segmentation, improve the overall service level of robot industry, meantime optimize and develop its application in the various walks of life.

So it all depends on what value proposition and business strategy you define for your product/service: we each have our own focus areas. Our R&D is also developing a lot of new things, like our LWR, lightweight robots, which will allow more human-robot collaboration in the future. We would like to regard it as a positive signal: many people in the market means that the market potential is big, and that if we want to maintain our position in the market we have to work on ourselves.

Can you tell us a little about the lightweight robots that you mentioned earlier?

They integrate a lot of torque sensors which make these robots quite sensitive. They move in a way that is somewhat like a human being, the arm of a human being. Working with them is more flexible and safer, because they can sense whether they are touching an object or a human. If it comes into contact with a human, it will either stop or perform some other action it has been programmed to do. you know, most industrial robots cannot work together with human beings.

They have to be fenced in with a physical fence or some warning device to protect people from the robot working area, because it’s quite dangerous. There are robots moving everywhere and they can be unpredictable. Now with these new machines we’ve integrated a lot of technology so that this robot can feel what is touching it and then perform an action in response. We call our new LWR robot LBR iiwa. "LBR" stands for "Leichtbauroboter" (German for lightweight robot), "iiwa" for “intelligent industrial work assistant." The LBR iiwa is the world's first sensitive lightweight robot suitable for use in industrial applications. It opens up an entirely new era for automation options. It has sensitive joint torque sensors in all seven axes. It works with high repeatability and can position itself exactly by means of its sensors. It enables the highest form of human-robot collaboration in industry. The LBR iiwa is flexible, intelligent, safe and accurate. It is also very light, so it can be put onto a working table and work with people to do things like assembling small parts. In the past something like gear assembly was just for people: you have to be careful and use the right amount of pressure to keep from damaging the parts. Now robots can perform this kind of job.

Robotics is a field which most people know very little about. What are some common misconceptions about robotics that you’ve come across?

I think that actually the understanding of robots is much better than it used to be. Japanese companies are making a lot of human- like robots which can do things like walk, and American companies like Google are buying some robot companies. So generally speaking I think that robots can be divided into types according to their application: such as service robots, military robots, space robots, and the one what we produce: industrial robots. Robot arms with several robots which can move in three dimensions. This type of robot can more realistically replace workers, but it’s more like a machine with certain control patterns. If we want to use them we have to equip them with things like sensors, welding torches; everything has to be built into the robot. It’s not like it is in the movies where the robot is very human-like with two arms, but in the future we will have this for sure.

In what sort of time frame?

It’s hard to say; I just can say that the development speed will be much much faster than it ever has been in 1,000 years. Starting in the 1970s every 10 to 20 years there was a new generation of robots. Now I believe that it will happen every three to five years, or maybe even faster.

Mr. Kong, thank you very much for talking to us today!

German Chamber Ticker Editorial Team

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