7 Jan 2016
Robotics Set to Make the Leap into Household and Educational Markets
With sales of robotics-related products soaring during the recent Double 11 and Double 12 events, a new generation of more sophisticated robots are likely to be found in both the domestic environment and in educational institutions.
While once solely seen as having heavy industry applications in the workplace, robots are increasingly making incursions into the domestic market. This was particularly highlighted during two recent mainland shopping festivals – Double 11 (11 November) and Double 12 (12 December). On both occasions, there was a marked upturn in demand for such items, as well as signs that educational robots are also striking a chord with consumers.
Taking a lead here have been automatic vacuum cleaners, items that have become increasingly common across the mainland. During the Double 12 event – organised by Taobao, China's leafing e-commerce platform – more than 200 such items were sold every day at one particular store. With a price of around Rmb1,000 each, some 4,000 units were sold during the course of the promotion.
Similarly, during the earlier Double 11 shopping festival, sales of one particular model of robot vacuum were more than double than that of the previous year. In total, it recorded sales of Rmb315 million, a figure 150 times that of just four years ago.
Part of this growth in popularity is down to the enhanced functionability of the newer models in the range. The latest generation of robot cleaners are equipped with smart anti-collision and automatic return-to-charging-base functions as standard. Many of them also feature an upgraded mop function, allowing the units to operate in both wet and dry cleaning modes.
One clearly satisfied purchaser was an "Ms Qi", a housewife who had bought a cleaning robot during one of the recent shopping festivals. She said: "I have been using this cleaner for a week and I am very pleased with it. The levels of dust and pet hair in my house are much lower now. My kids love to run on the floor barefoot and their feet don't get as dirty now."
As well as personal testimonials, the growing popularity of the sector is borne out by wider industry statistics. A Taobao report on consumer trends in China, released in the December of last year, shows that the mainland's smart electronics market has gained considerable momentum since the second half of 2013.
At present, that market impetus is still strong, with year-on-year growth currently pinned at around 250%. The report, based on an analysis of the spending patterns and purchasing behaviour of 386 million consumers, shows that cleaning robots account for the largest share of the smart household market. In addition, the impact of urban fog and smog has created a particular demand for robot window cleaners in Beijing, Liaoning and Shandong.
According to the survey, there is a limited choice of models and brands in the robot window cleaner category. Currently, only relatively few manufacturers – typically German and local companies – offer robot window cleaners. Priced at around Rmb2,000, such products are regarded as niche items in the smart household appliances sector, with there seeming to be clear opportunities for new entrants to the market.
According to a number of industry experts, household service robots will ultimately undergo a three-stage evolution – starting of as a tool, developing into a housekeeper, before finally maturing into undertaking a companion role. At present, most robots are still at the tool stage, largely used to help complete basic manual tasks around the home.
At last summer's China (Shenzhen) International Cultural Industries Fair (ICIF 2015), a new generation of domestically-producer smart service robots went on show. Currently widely promoted on e-commerce platforms, two to three such robots are sold on a daily basis, with the typical price said to be around Rmb3,000.
Standing no taller than one metre, these robots are designed to undertake a number of everyday functions, while also having an entertainment capability. Many of them can be programmed to sing and dance and come equipped with remote video control functions. Often they can engage in simple dialogues, enabling them to understand basic verbal instructions and making them suitable to be used by children and the elderly. In terms of security, they can also be instructed to relay alerts to designated mobile phones in case of trespass, fire or other emergency.
Given the formal adoption of the Two-child Policy and the aging demographic of China's population, the demand for companion robots will inevitably grow over time. At present, though, such items are mere novelties. With many international manufacturers investing heavily in their R&D efforts in order to boost the care-giving facilities of such automated helpers, they are soon expected to soon be seen as far more than merely engaging curiosities.
Currently, though, the new generation of companion robots available on the mainland market have problems with remote communications and verbal interactivity. Typically, they lack the capacity to identify human emotions and to respond appropriately in many scenarios.
A prime example of this generation is one of the more popular smart companion products available via the JD.com e-commerce platform. Despite the robot's enhanced capability in terms of voice identification, it still requires the use of standard Mandarin in order to avoid communication errors. Given the vast number of dialects in use across the mainland, this clearly represents a huge limitation and one that manufacturers are still working to overcome.
A more surprising development in sector has come with a number of families now apparently seeing buying a robot as an investment in their child's education. This has stemmed from an increased emphasis on scientific and practical education for young learners across China.
Usually decorated with a cute or cool graphics, these educational robots are designed to help youngsters of different age groups learn diverse programming design languages. At present such devices are available for anything between Rmb500 and Rmb3,000 or more, depending on the complexity and design of the individual unit.
This trend has also been marked by the growth of the Robotics Educational Institute. The institute operated 35 directly-run schools across China in 2014, rising to 62 by December 2015. At the same time, its number of franchised schools rose from 70 to more than 100.
The typical robotics course on offer covers such areas as sensors, electronics, mechanics and computer techniques, with computer programming and practical operation also on the syllabus. All these courses have been designed to provide students with a robust technical grounding in the discipline, while also nurturing creativity and innovation among the next generation of developers.
Targetted at a variety of age groups, education in the robotics field is offered with a number of bespoke curriculums. Korea's Roborobo, for instance, which already has a number of China-based faculties, offers elementary, intermediary and advanced tuition to mainland learners. These stages roughly equate to the study of modular robots, single-chip micro (SCM) robots and humanoid robots. Catering to an even younger group, Beijing's New Oriental Megaway Education & Consulting Co offers courses aimed at the three to six-year-old age group.
In line with this, educational robots that give children hands-on experience in system design, as well as programmable educational devices, have found favour among parents looking to give their children a headstart in this competitive sector. A number of educators have gone as far as to characterise the popular open source robot as putting the big world into the small hands of children.
As the learner's abilities grow, students are encouraged to branch out and undertake their own projects. Typically, this has involved the construction of miniature smart cars, robotic arms or even the assembly of a desktop 3D printer. Such activities have not only proved attractive to young learners, but have also come as some reassurance to parents concerned that their children are spending too much time playing online games and the like.
In light of the rapid development of the robot-related education, a number of commercial organisations are now offering extended learning opportunities. These include robotics-related overseas study trips, with both summer and winter camps planned by a number of institutions. These will also be timed to coincide with a number of international competitions in the field. After-hours and weekend classes are also being offered by a number of establishments.
Chu Wen, Special Correspondent, Beijing