Taiwanese Robots Invade China
A small enterprise named Idea is rapidly gaining favor in China's expanding automation sector, and pulling ahead of such industry giants as ABB and Delta.
Taiwanese Robots Invade ChinaBy Liang-Rong Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 551 )
An instant noodle factory in China's remote Gansu Province recently installed a brand-new production line. In the blink of an eye, ten robots with bodies the size of wok lids and spindly legs like spiders dexterously grab dried noodles, sauce packs and plastic spoons, placing them into empty instant noodle bowls that pass by on a conveyor belt.
This futuristic scene is the first fully automated instant noodle production line in all of China. In just one minute, 240 bowls of instant noodles can be packaged.
Idea, a small industrial robot maker from central Taiwan, has begun to make a name for itself in the cross-strait automation industry. Industry insiders reacted with disbelief and surprise when Idea won the Gansu project against a formidable, internationally known competitor – Zurich-based ABB, one of the world's largest engineering companies and a global leader in robotics and automation technology. ABB executives were flabbergasted when they heard that an unknown Taiwanese company had been chosen, asking "Who is Idea?"
Officially known as Intelligence Develop Engineering Aid Co. Ltd., Idea is the first Taiwanese manufacturer to produce an industrial "spider robot."
This type of robot is presently a hot seller in the international market because it can grab and place tiny, delicate objects much faster than humans. Spider robots are already widely used in the food and electronics industries.
Idea started out as a maker of automated equipment for printed circuit and display manufacturers, and accumulated a wealth of experience through long-term cooperation with large electronics manufacturers such as AU Optronics (AUO) and Unimicron Technology Corporation. Now the company is able to develop customized automation solutions for Chinese customers who know nothing about automated production, such as instant noodle factories, bakeries, and manufacturers of cigarettes or ceramic tiles.
This is the main reason why this obscure, small company has been able to land industrial robot deals in China, and even surpass larger Taiwanese competitors like Hiwin Technologies and Delta Electronics.
Dip in Orders Sparks Turnaround
Idea's general manager Rex Lin originally worked as a sales engineer for a Japanese manufacturer of semiconductor equipment. Later on, he teamed up with technical expert Justin Su, now Idea's president, to found the company in 2004 when the robotics and automation industry was still in its infancy in Taiwan.
At the time, Taiwanese display makers AUO and Chi Mei Optoelectronics Corp. (CMO) (now known as Chimei Innolux following a three-way merger) began to support domestically manufactured automation equipment. Idea seized the opportunity to earn big money for the first time. The young, passionate techies used their windfall profits to launch a massive recruitment drive for engineers to develop industrial robots.
From the very beginning, the duo had their sights set on spider robots, a little known and extremely expensive robot type also known as delta robots. Such robots, typically with three or four legs jointed in the middle, can handle and assemble delicate objects with exceptional speed and flexibility. They are used in various industries such as food production, electronics, pharmaceuticals, display and solar panel manufacturing, and material handling and packaging. ABB patented a delta robot that is widely used in solar cell production.
The financial crisis in 2008 became a turning point for Idea. As orders dried up, Su and Lin decided the company might as well concentrate fully on R&D.
Just as Idea's own version of a spider robot that did not infringe on the ABB patent was about to be released, "Taiwan's solar cell industry... bit the dust, just like that," Lin recalls with an exasperated sigh.
However, their efforts turned out to have not been in vain. In 2010, the ABB patent expired. Japanese automation giants Fanuc Corporation and Yaskawa Electric Corporation began to release their own delta robots. Idea followed in their footsteps, unveiling Taiwan's first homegrown spider robot at the Taipei International Industrial Automation Exhibition in 2012.
One multinational corporation's general manager for Taiwan spent a long time at the Idea booth, scrutinizing the new product. After a while, he congratulated Lin and Su on their spider robot, saying: "You are the pride of Taiwan. Keep up the good work."
Robots are seen as the holy grail of the machinery industry, and numerous Taiwanese companies have taken on the challenge of developing them. Still, given that Idea was a small company with just a few dozen employees at the time, industry peers felt they were reaching for the stars, that they were overextending themselves with their robot dream.
"A lot of people asked us, 'Why do you want to make robots?' But that's what we wanted to do," Lin relates. "Why shouldn't Taiwanese be able to make robots?"
In the eyes of experts, industrial robots are actually a mature technology. Similar to personal computers, virtually all components for industrial robots such as reduction gears, servomotors and controllers can be readily bought, albeit for very high prices. Unless a company is able to produce key components itself, it cannot produce lower-cost equipment that can be sold at a competitive price.
This is the main reason why the threshold for entering the industrial robot sector remains high and why a few large companies such as Fanuc and ABB have been able to dominate the industry for many years.
Slimming Down Functions for Greater Price Competitiveness
Idea teamed up with the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) to develop its own components. On top of that, Idea thoroughly analyzed customer needs to develop customizable robots with just enough functions to meet specific customer requirements. With these slimmed-down products, Idea was able to compete on price.
Meanwhile, Idea has developed an entire automated system including core visual recognition, machinery and robotic arms. "Idea can produce all these itself," Su notes proudly. "Otherwise, we would not have been able to beat ABB."
Idea's conquest of the Chinese market was also dictated by necessity: As Taiwan's troubled LCD display, solar panel and printed circuit industries stopped investing in new equipment, Idea was forced to look for new customers elsewhere.
Ten-fold Jump in Output
After touring China for two years, Lin found, much to his surprise, that outside the automobile and electronics industries, which are dominated by large corporations, China has huge automation demands in the production of food and daily necessities. Moreover, Idea has virtually no competitors in these sectors.
After landing the deal with the Gansu instant noodle maker, Idea has begun to get orders from Taiwanese enterprises in China. This should be enough business to keep Idea busy for the coming three to five years. Next year, their output will jump tenfold from ten robots this year to more than 100 robots.
Nevertheless, robotics expert Huang Han-pang, who knows Idea well, warns that the company must continue to upgrade its technology if it wants to stay in the game for the long run. A distinguished professor at National Taiwan University's Department of Mechanical Engineering, Huang believes that without further technological progress, "such a niche market lasts only for two or three years. Once small Chinese manufacturers rush in, the game is over."
Nonetheless, by pursuing a "big fish in a small pond" strategy, Idea has pragmatically opened up a promising road for the future development of Taiwan's robotics and automation industry.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz