Crunch Time for Taiwan: Robotics and Automation

Aware of its limitations and very tardy, Taiwan hurries to catch up with East Asia

Vaunted yet vulnerable
As its East Asian neighbors are in a decided hurry to build out their manufacturing capabilities with robot-driven automation, the island nation of Taiwan and its 24 million citizens—20 percent of whom will be 65 years old or older by 2025—has done remarkably little to  join the robot club.

In fact, the scenario at present looks more like the parade is passing it by.

Taiwan’s electronics industry is vaunted and venerable with decades of high-octane output of everything from chips to PCs to laptops to flat panels to medical instrumentation, yet with robotics it seems very vulnerable.

The Swiss research report, Machinery Industry in Taiwan, points out “Local manufacturers are capable of producing unitary axial robots and vertical coordinate robots, and have to rely on foreign countries for higher-scale robots.”

These higher-scale robots are just the types needed for any shot at successful robot automation of Taiwanese industry.

“A few manufacturers and research institutes have begun to develop high-scale robots,” continues the report. “However, Taiwan has to import critical components (e.g. server motor, controller, decelerators) from foreign countries.

“Thus, production costs become too high. To the worse extent, domestic users are reluctant to use Taiwan-made robots that have not been proven successful yet. Therefore, local robot manufacturers prefer to act as agents to distribute imported robots.”

As Robotics Business Review recently noted about Taiwan’s seemingly lethargic response to the robot revolution: “With its neighbors (Japan, Korea and China) already leagues ahead in developing an indigenous robot industry, Taiwan is finally joining its mates as the Asian Century vaults itself into a future of robot-driven automation.

“Small but powerfully wealthy and boasting a formidable electronics skill set, Taiwan is positioned to do well in robotics, if it so chooses. Time, however, is not on its side.

“Sure, Hon Hai Precision Industry, more commonly known by its trade name, Foxconn—the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer and also a heavyweight producer of industrial robots —makes its corporate home in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, yet builds tens thousands of robots for itself and its customers on the mainland.”

Taiwan’s indigenous robot producers sell about $1.5 billion in robots annually. Not too bad, except in light of Taiwan’s $78 billion in ICs and micro-assemblies. Seems as though robots have never been a priority; they don’t crack the top twenty list of highest value, mechanical export products.

Then too, Taiwan has always been content to excel at being the foundry of parts for the brands of others rather than brand Taiwan. In the shadows, it produces parts that support robots produced elsewhere. Any need for high-end robots is traditionally satisfied with robots also from elsewhere.

Until now.

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