Robotics firms eager to grasp opportunities
A robotic hand is busy moving trays containing components for smartphones and consumer electronics at a plant in Zhongshan, Guangdong province. DoraHand has sensors on each of its three fingers, which enable it to grab a variety of objects.
"DoraHand can pick three oranges, two pears and one apple from a pile of fruit of various sizes," said Deng Xiaobai, co-founder and CEO of Dorabot Inc, a Shenzhen-based robotic solutions provider for logistics, express delivery, smart manufacturing, retailing and other industries.
Dorahand is the world's first dexterous robotic hand based on a finger module design, which greatly reduces the use, operation and maintenance costs of such equipment, the company said. The finger module design means it has applications in a wide range of industrial scenarios.
Dorabot is one of a growing number of Chinese robotics companies scrambling to expand their research and development and emerge as an international player in the industry.
A five-year plan (2021-25) for the robotics industry, unveiled in December by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, called for greater efforts to widen the application of robotics in more sectors, including logistics and manufacturing.
Song Xiaogang, executive director and secretary-general of the China Robot Industry Alliance, said robots are important carriers of emerging technologies. As key equipment for modern industries, robots can lead an industry's digital development and upgrades of intelligent systems. "More efforts will be made to popularize the use of logistics robots in labor-intensive scenarios, such as sorting and packaging," Song said.
The five-year plan also pushes for the wider application of robots in plants producing consumer electronics, auto parts and other fields, Song said.
China has been the world's largest market for industrial robots for eight consecutive years. In 2020, the industrial robot density, a metric used to measure a country's level of automation, reached 246 units per 10,000 people in China, nearly twice the global average.
Wang Weiming, an official with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, said China aims to double its industrial robot density by 2025, with high-end, advanced robots seeing wider industrial applications.
Experts said wider use of robots and automated systems in logistics is important to achieving that goal, given the large number of people employed in the delivery sector and the country's booming e-commerce sector. China handled more than 100 billion parcels this year, ranking top in the world, according to data from the State Postal Bureau of China.
Established tech giants are working hard to include robotics and smart logistics networks in their business operations.
JD Logistics said smart technologies, including robots, automated sorting and unmanned warehouses, are being used in their automated warehouses. The company operates over 1,200 warehouses nationwide, and 39 of them are highly automated, intelligent logistics parks.
JD Logistics CEO Yu Rui said the company will deploy thousands of autonomous delivery vehicles in the next two to three years. So far, JD Logistics' autonomous delivery vehicles have been used in 25 cities across the nation, with about 2 million orders filled.
Wu Hequan, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said "The digital transformation of logistics, which includes the application of robotics, AI, cloud computing and blockchain technologies, will make a huge contribution to the industry and society."
Deng, from Dorabot, said the COVID-19 pandemic has driven changes in the business of logistics, which include the acceleration of innovation, automation and digitalization in the workplace. "During the pandemic, robotics allowed for greater social distancing without affecting productivity," Deng said.
However, the penetration of smart logistics products in the industry is still relatively low. Most logistics companies are still relying on manpower or automation, which means there is great growth potential in the industry, Deng said.
Dorabot has also developed a robot parcel sorter that is in use at a DHL Express logistics operation, Gangbuk Service Center, in Seoul, South Korea. Artificial intelligence allows the robotic arm to quickly sort documents and small parcels into separate delivery bins. It is capable of sorting over 1,000 small parcels an hour, and Dorabot said the device has increased efficiency at the center by 41 percent.
The robot now processes the largest volume of small parcels volume in the company's South Korean network after it went into operation on July 20.
"We are handling record shipment volumes due to the current e-commerce boom, and robotics will help ease our staff 's work burden as well as improve productivity," said ByungKoo Han, country manager of DHL Express Korea.