Guangzhou, China — China's largest robot maker, Siasun Co. Ltd., is turning to plastics to make a lighter and more versatile version of a collaborative robot, known as a cobot.
The Shenzhen-based company worked with BASF SE to replace the skin of a cobot with plastic.
The two companies showed a prototype cobot at BASF's booth at Chinaplas, held May 16-19 in Guangzhou.
"We're trying to control the weight," said Yang Luo, vice president of Siasun. "[Typically] a robot may weigh at least 100 kilograms, but the robotics [prototype] we released is only 20 kilograms. We hope to use new types of materials to make robotics more versatile.
"The robots are like people's arms," he said. "The trend is to have this sensory technology, to make [cobots] more collaborative with human beings."
The right plastics were chosen after a lot of trial and error, Yang said.
"We made different trials using carbon fiber and nylon. Later we realized that it was impossible for us to create up to standard using legacy materials," he said. "We needed a company to create a solution."
Yang said Siasun will keep working with BASF.
"They will also offer us many solutions to develop the next generation prototype cobot in future," Yang said.
Yang added that BASF materials allowed the company to mold and 3D print complex shapes. Andy Postlethwaite, BASF senior vice president of Performance Materials Asia Pacific, said Siasun used Elastollan thermoplastic polyurethane elastomer, glass-fiber reinforced Ultramid nylon and 3D printed nylon 6.
Yang said the two companies struck up a partnership almost by chance.
"We met them at an exhibition and started talking," he said. "They were looking for an application and we were looking for a material. We finally connected the dots of our business."
For the time being, Yang said Siasun is using plastics only for exterior parts.
"We are now doing fatigue and hardness testing for some product parts that have been replaced by plastics," he said. "We are focusing on [the] exterior facade and, in the future, we will move to interior components."
Metal was needed to reinforce some parts, he said. "Plastics can do it but metal is cheaper."
Yang sees opportunities to use more plastics in robot design. "In the future, we hope to improve the stiffness and hardness with plastics."
The cobot prototype at Chinaplas is not on the market yet, Yang said, and he demurred when asked for a commercialization timeline.
"We've already sent the pre-release to customers and they've been very happy," he said.
Siasun's cobot business is doing well, Yang said, noting that it is in line with China's "Made in China 2025" industrial policy, which hopes to have 150 robots per 10,000 workers by 2025. That's triple what rate the country has now.
"In China, when we try to implement Industry 4.0, humans cannot be fully replaced," he said. "We can replace some human labor work but robotics need some assistance from humans." That gives collaborative robots an edge over more precise industrial robots.
Yang said the traditional robot industry is growing, and the cobot industry can grow faster, "with a profit margin that's even higher."
"Customers are less picky about cost in cobots," Yang said. "It's clear sailing for us."
Market growth in China, of course, is driven by rising labor costs and skilled labor shortages. Yang expects annual sales growth of 40 percent.
Siasun is expanding both in China and overseas. For example, a $3.48 billion (RMB 15 billion) Robotic Future City project in Johor, Malaysia, a partnership between the Johor Corp. and Siasun, will kick off by the end of year to develop the local robotics industry.
"Last year we went to the Asian market and this year we will make inroads to the North American market," Yang said.
Yang downplayed news reports focusing on Siasun's interest in foreign acquisitions. Last year a Reuters story reported that the Chinese company was looking to buy German firms.
"We prefer to have a cooperation. M&A is another term for killing innovation, so we want to work with them and create a capital bond," he said. "Tech companies need freedom. It's not good for their innovation if we just buy them."
He did confirm that Siasun is discussing investments in Japanese and North American companies.
"We'll wait a few months. In recent years, we have already seen some crazy acquisition price by external players, which makes the market a bit messy, but it is getting better," he said.