In Burgos, a province in central Spain better known for archaeological digs and blood-sausages than for innovation, engineer Veronica Pascual is building automated vehicles. Not cars though, but forklifts, stackers and pallet trucks.
Pascual, a 38-year-old aeronautical engineer, owns Asti S.A.U., a company that produces so-called AGVs, or automated guided vehicles — mobile robots used in factories and warehouses that do not require human intervention to move.
While tech companies from Alphabet Inc to Uber Technologies Inc are scrambling to make self-driving cars, far less attention is paid to other, less sexy types of vehicles, opening a niche for companies like Asti, whose vehicles are used for moving a range of goods, from large packs of food boxes to 30 tonne airplane parts.
The robotics service market is growing fast. Bank of America Merrill Lynch expects robots to be performing 45 percent of all manufacturing tasks by 2025, compared with 10 percent in 2015.
The bank also estimates the industrial logistics, packaging and materials market will be valued at US$31 billion by 2020.
Despite the opportunity, there are few firms trying to take over the factory floor.
“Most robotics investments still go on industrial equipment,” said Mehdi El Alami, a partner at consultancy Roland Berger LLC, adding that only 2 percent is spent on logistics.
Caterpillar Inc and General Electric Co are among the few that have invested, having both backed Clearpath Robotics, a Canadian start-up focused on developing autonomous vehicles that move goods around factories.
Nissan Motor Co and BMW AG are among the automakers testing and using autonomous vehicles in their factories.
The ever-growing competition for the ultra-fast delivery of goods will speed up the emergence of robotization as the only means to capture more profitable revenue, El Alami said.
Asti hopes to cash in on the trend. Operating in 15 countries, it counts the likes of PSA Group Ltd, the manufacturer of Peugeot and Citroen cars, drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Spanish foodmaker Campofrio Food Group SA among its clients.
Asti’s sales jumped five-fold between 2012 and last year to 20 million euros (US$23 million), with plans to hit 100 million euros by 2020. Last year, the company sold a total of 956 vehicles.
“The US is a big market for growth, because there aren’t many people doing these type of projects there,” Pascual said in an interview in her factory.
PepsiCo Inc and Procter & Gamble Co are among its clients, as is Mexican breadmaking giant Grupo Bimbo SAB, which uses Asti’s vehicles to move pallets with bread from its plastic wrapping station to the warehouse at one of its Spanish plants.
Founded by Pascual’s parents in 1982, the company is housed in a 5,500m2 building at the end of a shabby road. About 150 employees clad in red jackets and black T-shirts build automated vehicles with names like RoboFasts, Easybots and Hardbots.
On one side of the factory, engineers and other employees hunch over tables working with the patented technology that allows the vehicles to rely on sensors and lasers to guide their movements.
Much of the space is given up to testing, some vehicles moving freely while others trundle down predesigned corridors.
One project is focused on automated battery-changing modules, where vehicles can have their low-charge batteries replaced automatically, without human intervention.
One business model Pascual hopes to change is the traditional factory line, swapping fixed robots for moving ones.
“Rather than taking parts to assembly lines, as has been always done, with automated vehicles you have the chance to move parts around, so a carmaker doesn’t have to be tied to the assembly lines anymore,” Pascual said.
Asti sells more than 60 percent of its vehicles abroad, with France as its main market.
In 2015, installations of industrial robots surged in Spain by 63 percent, according to the most recent data compiled by the International Federation of Robotics.
There is also room to grow. In the same year, there were 150 robots per 10,000 employees in Spain’s manufacturing industry while France had about 127 per 10,000, compared with 301 in Germany.
Confronted with the question about fears over job loss to automation, Pascual said it is a question of preparing people for different types of jobs.
“New job opportunities are created. There is a need to make more people employable. You can see destruction when instead of us leading the transition to automation we simply live with its consequences,” she said.
Pascual pinpoints her company’s own academy and education programs, aimed at both university and high-school students, that seek to foster job experience as well as young students interest in hard science.
Not everyone is so enthusiastic.
“We are analyzing the impact automatization will have and seeing it with concern,” Carmelo Ruiz de la Hermosa, industrial policies secretary at the UGT-FICA union group, said in a telephone interview. “Progress cannot be stopped and there will be more production and productivity, but there will be a lot of workers who are likely to be excluded, mainly in manual jobs.”
Gogoro Inc (睿能創意) yesterday launched its first electric bicycle, the Gogoro Eeyo 1, in Taiwan, after unveiling the bike in New York in late May and in France on Tuesday. The company said it would also introduce the series in other European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. The “Eeyo project” is the fourth of Gogoro’s eight projects that concentrate on smart transportation, which includes Gogoro’s electric scooter, battery swap system and electric scooter sharing service, company founder and chief executive officer Horace Luke (陸學森) told a media briefing in Taipei. “There are various types of city commuters. We will not
EXPERIMENTAL DRUG: While news about a COVID-19 vaccine is more eye-catching, developing a treatment would be more viable, the Senhwa boss said Senhwa Biosciences Inc (生華科) aims to raise NT$1.5 billion (US$50.57 million) by issuing 15 million new common shares in the third quarter of this year to fund the research of new drugs, including the experimental drug Silmitasertib for the treatment of COVID-19, the company said on Monday. That would be the firm’s largest fundraising effort after it raised more than NT$1.4 billion from an initial public offering on the Taipei Exchange (TPEX) in April 2017, chief financial officer Sarah Chang (張小萍) told the Taipei Times by telephone. The price of the new shares would depend on the firm’s average share price
NOT A PANACEA: Offering 5G services would not solve the problem of declining telecom incomes, chairman Sheih Chi-mau said, expecting a flat 5G telecom revenue Chunghwa Telecom Co (中華電信) yesterday became the nation’s first telecom to debut its 5G services, offering tiered tariffs that include a threshold of NT$599 and flat rates, as it aims to switch half of its subscribers to the 5G network within three years. Subscribers would have unlimited data transmission for monthly fees starting at NT$1,399 — the same flat rate as when the company launched its 4G service in 2014 — and they can subscribe to the highest-rate plan for NT$2,699 per month for faster data transmission speeds and larger bandwidth, the company said. Data transmission speeds would be within the range
ROW: A probe would determine if the rights of shareholders who were not allowed to vote yesterday had been violated, while the stock exchange also wants answers The election of board directors yesterday at Tatung Co (大同) sparked controversy after the company blocked some institutional and individual shareholders from participating in the general shareholders’ meeting, prompting the Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) to announce that the vote would be investigated. Lin Kuo Wen-yen (林郭文艷) was re-elected as chairwoman of the household-appliance maker’s nine-member board, but prior to the vote she announced that several shareholders would not have voting rights. They were being denied a vote because they had contravened the Business Mergers and Acquisitions Act (企業併購法), and the Act Governing Relations Between the People of the Taiwan Area and