Articles & stories The Robot Revolution: Is Automation Reshaping Asia?

The Robot Revolution: Is Automation Reshaping Asia?
Robots in our daily lives are no longer a surprise, whether we are talking about industrial robots in the automotive industry or smaller ones like the smartphones most of us carry in our pockets. However, there is much more technology to come: Robots with tactile sensing or autonomous vehicles are just some examples of what the future of robotics holds. Is Asia at the forefront of the automation revolution? 

The Times They Are A-Changing

Thanks to advances in technology, robots are being used in fields traditionally occupied by humans. These days, machines not only move heavy pallets, but also pick tomatoes, act as IT support or even help doctors to diagnose patients.

The potential of robotics has been recognized all around the world, but the broadest social acceptance seems to be in Asia, with the result that robots have become a part of daily life there.

China: Big Fish

“China has been the largest buyer of industrial robots in the world for several years, accounting for about a third of global demand,” says Angus Muirhead, a Senior Portfolio Manager for Robotics at Credit Suisse, although he points out that “around 70% of all the robots that China buys are produced outside China.” This should change after the Chinese government launched a ten-year national plan “Made in China 2025,” which underlines the importance of robotics development for the country. By 2020 the country’s robot density is targeted to rise to 150 per 10,000 employees (quadruple today’s figures) making it one of the top ten most automated nations. According to the International Federation of Robotics, industrial robot sales in China could increase by 15-20% annually between 2018 and 2020.

Japan: A Seismic Effect in Industrial Robotics

Apart from already being the world’s predominant industrial robot manufacturer, robotics has also been included in Japan’s growth plan. Launched in 2014, the plan assumed two-fold growth in the use of robots in manufacturing and an impressive 20-fold increase in agriculture by 2020. Faced with the issue of a rapidly aging population, Japan has a pressing need for additional workforce capacity, especially for dangerous or boring and repetitive tasks. This demand could be filled with robots, allowing policymakers to mitigate the negative effects on growth of demographics.

A Pan-Asian Trend 

Japan and China are not the only ones that delegate tasks to robots. In South Korea, robot density is eight times the global average, mainly thanks to the high volume of robots used in automotive and electronic sectors. This makes it the world’s number one destination for robotics. 

Robots are forecast to become an integral part of Asian agriculture in the near future. Watering fields and harvesting crops are not the only use for these helpful machines, though. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), aka drones, can monitor big areas of land, helping farmers to maximize output in a sustainable way. The Singaporean company Garuda Robotics produces drones that fly with an attached infrared camera and shoot images that can be used to analyze crop health. “Because of the size and importance of the industry to the region,” says Mark Yong, the founder and CEO of Garuda Robotics, “even making 25 percent of crops healthier will have an immediate and significant impact.” The proposed solution should improve speed, precision, and yield volume, but also could reduce the environment-unfriendly slash-and-burn farming.

Change happens slowly, until people’s mind-sets change. Then it happens all at once. Mark Yong, Founder and CEO of Garuda Robotics

Where Else Could They Fly?

Given the vast range of potential applications for drone services, many believe that UAVs will play an indispensable role in other areas of our lives. Besides projects like Amazon Prime Air, where UAVs are used to deliver books and other products, drones could be used to monitor and inspect any piece of infrastructure and report back quickly on anomalies. Public health could also benefit: The tropical climate of Southeast Asia makes it a fertile breeding ground for mosquitos, which spread diseases like malaria or the Zika virus. Drones can fly over hard-to-reach areas to scan for stagnant pools of water and spray larvicide to neutralize these carriers of disease.

Moreover, drones can be used for humanitarian purposes – for instance, dropping off medical supplies and relief packages to cut-off communities hit by natural disasters. Therefore, UAVs are much more than playthings that take pictures.

The Main Challenge Is the Mind-Set Change

The main challenge on the business side, according to Yong, is convincing potential customers to change the way things have been done for decades and take a chance on the future. “Once the novelty wears off, more people will realize that drones are a platform for more important technologies that have industrial capabilities,” he says of the disruptive potential of drones. “Change happens slowly, until people’s mind-sets change. Then it happens all at once.” It seems that in Asia, a change in mind-set is in full swing and that there are a lot of reasons to keep an eye out for the many automated solutions emerging from the continent.