Disruption from the East: China and South Korea Going from Laggards to Leaders in Robotics Market

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1Q 2019 | IN-5382

Traditionally consumers of robotics technology, China and South Korea have started to gain traction in their robotics investments and launch many innovative robotics systems of their own. This insight looks at the rise of Asian internet giants that have achieved great progress in 2018, their unique characteristics and how they stack up against their Western counterparts.

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Finally, a 5G-Enabled Industrial Robot


At CES 2019 Naver, a South Korea based internet conglomerate whose core businesses include social media, payment, and navigation maps, debuted a 5G powered robotics arm called AMBIDEX. AMBIDEX is remotely controlled via commercial 5G network, with its control system located in the cloud.

In addition, Naver also launched AROUND G, an autonomous mobile robot that runs on Naver’s integrated location and mobility platform, known as eXtended Definition & Dimension Map. The map platform is capable of acquiring and refreshing a 3D/HD map, precise indoor and outdoor localization, and context-aware location information. All of these robotics solutions are developed by Naver Labs.

Center of Gravity Shifting Toward China


This is the first time Naver ever debuted any robotics solution, but it is a timely decision. South Korea has already had an operational commercial 5G network since December 2018, and all three domestic telcos are aggressively looking for new areas and use cases that require 5G. Although this is by no means the first 5G robot (Toyota debuted its T-HR3 humanoid robot in partnership with NTT DoCoMo in late last year), Naver also showcases a mapping platform which will be critical to connected vehicles powered by 5G networks. All these technologies will boost Naver’s competitive outlook once more and more applications start to get connected over 5G network.

As such, Naver joins the rank of Alibaba, JD.com, and Meituan-Dianping from China to feature their own in-house robotics solutions, a feat only rivalled by Amazon in the US and Ocado from the UK. How did these companies become so prominent in the robotics arm race? There are three main factors that contribute to this development:

  • Rapid cycles of innovation: Due to their coverage area and footprint, Chinese internet giants are competing fiercely among themselves. They invest in various online to offline services, with the aim of generating the highest level of synergy across their business units. Having robotics solutions in warehouses allows Alibaba and JD.com to keep up with customer demands and better weather through fluctuations in labor market. JD.com even takes the extra step to manufacture all their robots in house. This encourages these companies to test and try various innovations. Recently, Amazon launched Scout, a grocery delivery robot, and similar in-house solutions have already been announced by Alibaba, JD.com, and Meituan-Dianping at GTC China 2018. Time will tell whether these solutions are sufficiently robust and reliable for day-to-day operations, but at least Asian internet companies are moving at a similar pace to Amazon, who is long considered to be a power house in robotics.
  • Government mandate: It is impossible to ignore the regulatory and government policy environment in China and, to a lesser extent, Japan and South Korea. China, Japan, and South Korea are all heavy consumers of industrial robots. Over 60% of industrial robot shipments go to North Asia, thanks to their large manufacturing footprint. These countries have long desired to move up the value chain and are eager to become leaders in emerging technology. Despite current disputes with the United States, China is expected to continue to push forward in its Made in China 2025 vision.
  • Robust start-up scene: The startup scene has grown significantly in Asia in the past few years. ABI Research noticed that China overtook the United States in venture capitalist funding for AI in 2017. China has witnessed the rise of startups with capabilities in key emerging technologies, including AUBO Robotics (collaborative robot), Geek+ (warehousing robot), Slamtec (LiDAR), and Momenta (high definition mapping), all of which are critical to the future development of the robotics industry.

Always Cast Your Net Wide and Never Walk Alone


Chinese and South Korean internet giants have been known to be bold and risk-taking, but they never deploy robotics solutions in silo. They always collaborate (Alibaba’s investment in Geek+ and Flashhold, Naver and LG Electronics’ partnership), look out for nascent use cases (Alibaba’s hospitality robots and Rakuten’s unmanned aerial vehicle traffic management for last mile delivery) and combine robotics solutions with new cases (Naver’s 5G robot). While it is acknowledged that these internet giants have wider business footprints than their Western counterparts, their willingness to test and trial robotics systems with their partners across all verticals is what makes them unique. Such effort also brings the economies of scale, maximizing the impact of robotics innovation.

What is equally interesting is the response from their Western counterparts. Amazon has invested in Balyo, an autonomous forklift company, and launched its own last mile delivery robot. Both Amazon and Google also announced cloud robotics platforms to encourage robotics companies to move their robotics solutions into the cloud. Even Microsoft has started to integrate ROS, the de facto open source robotics operating system, into Windows 10. The robotics industry in the United States has strong pedigrees in robotics software, an edge unrivaled by China, South Korea and even Japan. This creates an interesting divergence in robotics advancement. As more advancement in the West comes from robotics software and platforms, expect more focus on cross-vertical robotics implementations in the Asian market.

In short, in order to be successful in robotics arm races, a company must embrace and align itself with emerging technologies, have a wide ecosystem of technology partners and startups, and be willing to combine technology with nascent use cases across multiple industries. Moving forward, ABI Research also believes that rest of the industry must and will embrace openness, collaboration, and partnerships. The rise of internet giants signifies that robotics systems are no longer a hardware game and will instead be driven by the needs and requirements across a wide range of applications and use cases, as the adoption of robotics permeates into various verticals.