Robots to the rescue of embattled logistics sector

It may no longer be the man's job to carry things. Advocates of robotics have long predicted that human porters will one day be replaced by so-called logistics robots.

It may no longer be the man’s job to carry things.

Advocates of robotics have long predicted that human porters will one day be replaced by so-called logistics robots.

I got a glimpse of how that future looks while attending a recent press conference in Zhangjiang High-Tech Park.

Qian Yongqiang, founder and CEO of a robotics company named MOOE, strode on stage and explained how his products could benefit factory managers, by saving costs in hiring people to move objects around the factory floor.

MOOE, which literally translates as “Wooden Ants,” is inspired by the way ants work collectively to move things. It has seen a surge of 400 percent in the orders placed for its robots in the past year alone.

The company’s spectacular performance is part of a great revolution unfolding in China’s logistics industry. China’s demographic dividends, which used to fuel its growth, are diminishing fast, forcing the nation to look for alternatives to its once cheap labor.

Naturally, the labor-intensive logistics industry is among the first to turn to robotics companies — like the one headed by Qian — for help.

Qian said emerging consumer needs may have put winds in its sails and prompted it to speed up the development of new products. The recent release of several new models capable of lifting objects weighing up to 100, 300 and 500 kilograms has put his company among leaders in the segment of mobile robots, commonly known as AGV, or automated guided vehicle.

Equipped with the latest technology, the models can navigate the factory floor on their own, avoiding obstacles without being instructed how, said Qian.

I watched with curiosity as one of the models known as M8 picked up a parcel from shelves, zigzagged through crowds of spectators and made its way to the designated drop-off point.

A staff member of MOOE said in the future such devices may be deployed to airport terminals. At the cost of one yuan (15 US cents) or two, passengers can rent a robot helper and trust it with their luggage. In contrast to a luggage cart, which is heavy when fully loaded, the robotic helper handles passengers’ luggage with ease and follows them wherever they go.

More applications

This is one of the most obvious non-industrial situations where MOOE products are applicable. But experts speaking at a forum following Qian’s presentation also pointed out that there is ample room for imagination about where and how the robots can be used.

In effect, as Kong Huawei observed, the application of a product on a restrictive basis will limit its market potential.

Co-founding partner of iStart Ventures, a venture capital firm, Kong said he has seen many cases where a well-designed product, widely anticipated to make a splash, turned out to be a failure that sold only a handful of units. The problem can be blamed on the way many entrepreneurs tether their innovations to a certain field. He thus advised MOOE against marketing its robots as a single-purpose product, although it does primarily address the “pain point” confronting factory operators.

He cited the example of smartphones, saying that at the time of its invention nobody foresaw that it would evolve into far more than a communication gadget. The reasons many adolescents are constantly buying better phones is to take higher-resolution selfies.

Likewise, many commercial drones in China are used for unlikely purposes — setting off fireworks, choreographing a light show, rather than for aerial photography alone. “Entrepreneurs must think out of the box and push the envelope,” he noted.

This unexpected ingenuity, a mark of the raw vigor of China’s start-up scene, hints at a gap between entrepreneurial expectations and real market needs, however weird.

Chen Shikai, CEO of SlamTec, also a robotics company, agreed. He noted that many robotics entrepreneurs are technically competent, but they aren’t astute enough to expand the scope of situations suited to their products. He quipped that future logistics robots may appear in the form of mobile rubbish bins or couriers to help collect our garbage and deliver meals to our doorstep.

In fact, this is already happening in e-commerce. China’s two largest e-commerce players, Alibaba and JD, are already putting their robotic couriers in the streets to deliver packages on a trial basis.

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