Fri, Aug 24, 2018 - Page 10 News List

Trade tensions might hit China’s robot market

NUMBERS TALK:Annualized growth rates for robot production dropped to only 6.3 percent last month from 35.1 percent in May, China’s statistics bureau said

Reuters, BEIJING

A boy stands next to an iPal robot at Avatarmind’s booth at the World Robot Conference in Beijing, China, on Friday last week.

Photo: Reuters

At a trade show in southern Beijing, children and parents crowd around a group of pink and blue dancing robots that resemble toddler-sized Power Rangers.

The robots — wired with wide LED smiles and cutesy personalities — are the brainchild of Chinese-US company AvatarMind Robot Technology Ltd (阿凡達機器人科技), built to be futuristic retail workers, teacher’s assistants and household helpers.

Yet even as the company polishes off production of 2,000 units, AvatarMind and companies like it are rethinking plans for international expansion in the face of widening tariffs.

“We want to sell them for the price that is affordable for families, not just institutions, and [US President Donald] Trump’s tariffs may affect that,” AvatarMind chief executive officer John Ostrem said at the World Robot Conference, which ends on Sunday.

The main competitor to AvatarMind’s iPal humanoid robot is a similar, but much pricier bot called Pepper, which is made by Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.

Annualized growth rates for robot production in China dropped from 35.1 percent in May to just 6.3 percent last month, the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics said.

The Chinese National Development and Reform Commission said the slowdown is not related to trade, but analysts say that there is an obvious link to direct tariffs on industrial machinery and robot parts, as well as domestic manufacturers’ putting off production during trade talks.

“How could it not be related?” said Iris Pang (彭藹嬈), economist for Greater China at ING Wholesale Banking in Hong Kong. “The trade war may have already deferred some decisions of export-related manufacturers.”

US tariffs on US$16 billion worth of Chinese goods came into effect at midnight on Wednesday, alongside retaliatory Chinese tariffs on an equal amount of US goods.

Although robots are not directly named, the US list includes electronics, auto parts and other items that require automated manufacturing and robots. An earlier round of US$34 billion tariffs on Chinese goods lists industrial robots.

The situation could worsen for Chinese robotics manufacturers, analysts say, if the US imposes a further US$200 billion in tariffs on a range of consumer goods that create manufacturing demand for robots in China.

China has included robotics as one of 10 industries to get state support under its Made in China 2025 industrial plan, which aims to make it a world leader in key technologies in the next decade.

Some Chinese companies hope the country’s cornerstone Belt and Road Initiative will provide a boost even if trade with the US evaporates.

Others said the low cost of Chinese manufacturing would — for now — compensate for tariffs in the US, where competing products like Pepper are still more expensive.

Li Shuai, a manager at Beijing Bohui Innovation Optoelectronic Technology Co (北京柏惠維康科技), which produces medical robot Remebot, said her company is seeking US Food and Drug Administration approval for its robots.

“There is a similar product abroad in France,” Li said. “Its domestic price is probably in the tens of millions, and the price of our equipment is controlled at about 5 or 6 million. Therefore, there is still a great advantage for us.”

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