Amid COVID-19 impacts, companies see uptick in overseas orders for intelligent solutions

A Keenon robot welcomes a guest in a hotel lobby in Shanghai in 2022. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

At a restaurant in Singapore, a server is busy swerving between tables and bringing dishes to hungry customers. The server always brings the dishes on time, never complains of being tired and is often tipped with dimes by frequent visitors.

However, the server is not a human but a delivery robot developed by Shanghai-based unicorn Keenon Robotics, which has been working as an official employee for over a year at the restaurant. The restaurant's cute employee, which is cartoon-like with a bright smile, adds a sense of warmth to help personalize the dining experience.

We believe that the autonomous revolution led by intelligent robotics will lead to a new revolution both at home and abroad by helping to remove tedious, labor-intensive and dangerous tasks.

Li Tong, founder and CEO of Keenon Robotics

Amid COVID-19-related disruptions, delivery robots have been popular in foreign countries and regions, which greatly eases manpower and reduces human-to-human contact for safety. At the same time, it also brings huge opportunities to Chinese robotics companies.

"The pandemic has affected every industry. Many restaurants and hotels couldn't find enough qualified people to work at that time. Last year, we quickly decided to pitch our business to foreign markets and it's turned out well," said Li Tong, founder and CEO of Keenon Robotics, an artificial intelligence provider of intelligent unmanned delivery solutions.

According to Li, sales revenue of Keenon almost doubled last year thanks to the momentum gained in overseas markets. More than half of the company's robots were shipped to foreign markets in 2022 and are expected to be boosted to 70 percent in the coming one to two years, he said.

Founded in 2010, Keenon Robotics leverages its fully autonomous positioning and navigation technology to offer robots both at home and abroad, including server, disinfection and delivery robots. Embedded with leading technologies in lidar, machine vision, depth vision and sonar, such robots can work efficiently in complex environments.

"In the field of industrial robots, Chinese companies have already turned from followers to leaders and stand at the forefront with their counterparts in the US, no matter in terms of technologies or applications. They accumulated huge experience in China, and therefore are better at adapting to different application scenarios abroad," Li said.

"We believe that the autonomous revolution led by intelligent robotics will lead to a new revolution both at home and abroad by helping to remove tedious, labor-intensive and challenging tasks," he added.

Currently, the Shanghai-based company has offered its services and products to 60 markets across the world, including North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Among them, Li found that robot shipments are generally higher in developed countries, as hiring humans typically comes with higher costs.

Behind this is the broader momentum of the large commercialization of Chinese industrial robots, where Chinese companies have revved up autonomous driving and AI technologies in robots and applied such technologies in hotels, airports and many other scenarios.

As ChatGPT takes the tech world by storm, Liu Lianqing, deputy head of the Shenyang Institute of Automation under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in an interview that Chinese companies are expected to embrace further development with more AI applications.

"Recent years have witnessed a rise in robots entering into high-end applications. Also, core components in domestic robots used to rely largely on imports, but recently many homegrown and independent components are quickly catching up," he said.

A service robot of Shenzhen, Guangdong province-based Pudu Tech operates during the World Robot Conference in Beijing in September 2021. (LU QIJIAN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

China is the world's largest market for the industrial robot industry, which is known as "the crown jewel of manufacturing". Data from the China Robotics Industry Alliance showed that last year, sales of industrial robots in China reached over 300,000 units, an increase of about 15.96 percent year-on-year, which accounted for more than half of global sales.

The latest Government Work Report, revealed during this year's two sessions — the top legislative and political advisory meetings — stated that key priorities this year include the pooling of quality resources and concerted efforts to achieve breakthroughs in core technologies in key fields.

Jin Zhuanglong, minister of industry and information technology, the nation's top industry regulator, said that persistent efforts are needed to tackle problems in crucial technologies. One of the ministry's top priorities during the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) period is to advance the modernization of industrial chains and encourage companies to develop core technologies such as AI.

Industry experts believe that the pandemic also sped up the application of industrial robots, as many industries, including catering, medical and airports, are in urgent need of such robots to relieve manpower and reduce human contact.

Shenzhen, Guangdong province-based Pudu Tech, another leading maker of service robots, has leveraged its service robots to perform disinfection and transport necessities in many cities.

Quicktron, a Chinese intelligent warehouse robotics firm, uses its advanced logistics robots to choose and deliver goods in warehouses.

Quicktron has also partnered with Cainiao-Alibaba Group's logistics offshoot to build an intelligent factory of over 35,000 square meters with nearly 1,000 intelligent robots in Wuxi, Jiangsu province.

A research report published by Markets and Markets last August said the world's service robotics market is projected to grow from $36.2 billion in 2021 to $103.3 billion by 2026. The growing adoption of robots for new applications providing high returns on investment, coupled with the rising use of the internet of things in robots for cost-effective predictive maintenance, are key factors driving the service robotics market, the report said.

As China optimized its pandemic control measures, Chinese robot startups are upbeat about the prospects.

Li from Keenon said the company will simultaneously beef up efforts in both domestic and overseas markets this year. Quicktron founder and CEO Yang Wei said earlier that it aims to expand to over 100 countries and regions and generate 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) in revenue in the coming years.

Zhang Weijiong, a professor from the China Europe International Business School, said: "Chinese robotics companies, represented by Keenon, can thrive in China thanks to the country's relatively low manufacturing costs and a sound supply and industrial chain.

"With such advantages, they are expected to further knock on the doors of rising markets globally, especially those with relatively high labor costs."

However, Zhang also pointed out that some challenges await Chinese robotics firms, as they need to abide by the laws and regulations overseas and follow different cultures and values of various countries, as well as various industrial and technical standards, and even standards in appearance and packaging when doing business overseas.

"In addition, they need to establish corresponding channels and teams to facilitate robotics products to enter the international market. This requires enterprises to be able to allocate various resources in order to do well," Zhang said.