From a global perspective, Asia is at the forefront of the burgeoning robotics industry. Positive attitudes towards AI, as well as funding and tax incentives at national levels, have ensured that Asian countries lead the way in wage-controlled robot adoption.
A 2017 study, entitled ‘Which Nations Really Lead in Industrial Robot Adoption?’, revealed that Korea, Singapore and Japan were amongst the top 5 countries to utilise industrial robots, along with Germany and Sweden. The report also stated that in real terms, Western countries are slow to adopt robotics. In contrast, Southeast Asian nations occupied the top spots, driven by the expectation that robotics will increase GDP, raise living standards and create employment. All very valid reasons as to why the industry is flourishing in Asia.
An overview of the robotics startup scene
While it is a common belief that AI and robots will increase unemployment, the rapid growth of robotics in Southeast Asia is turning that misconception on its head. Singapore is championing the field, along with development in other technological sectors. According to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, the country was the world’s second-largest adopter of industrial robots in 2017—with 658 robots for every 10,000 workers.
Singapore’s focus on innovation is second to none. With a supportive regulatory structure and tax policies to encourage early adoption, it is ramping up to be the country best prepared for AI adoption in Southeast Asia. Its digital infrastructure, and pool of IT talent and tech-savvy population, make it perfectly-poised for the robotics revolution.
Elsewhere in the region, Thailand has exceeded expectations in the field, reporting an adoption rate far higher than wage levels would predict. GleeTrees is one robotics startup which, although based in Singapore, is taking its business to emerging markets in Indonesia, Vietnam and beyond; and that is only one example of some of the promising robotics startups making their mark in Southeast Asia.
Key players in the region
Founded in 2016, GleeTrees developed Robotic Process Automation software which effectively automates repetitive processes on a computer customarily carried out by humans. They have set their sights on markets in China, Indonesia and Vietnam, where they plan to launch software with a document-extraction feature capable of reading in various Asian languages. GleeTrees’ cognitive automation solutions have wide applications in industries including insurance, logistics, manufacturing, government, banking, and services. The startup has been quick to adopt AI, making its automation more cognitive. This, as well as their focus on user-friendly systems with language capabilities, only adds to their competitive edge.
Back in 2009, Thai startup CT Asia Robotics built a robot named Dinsow I, intending to fill the gaps in areas with staff shortages, such as healthcare. The company had its breakthrough in 2014 when its robots were adopted in Japan to help solve the country’s major social issue: taking care of the elderly in an increasingly ageing population. Once they had broken into the Japanese market, other countries followed, and orders from Singapore and Germany were forthcoming in the following years. Their founder, Chalermpon Punnotok, saw an opportunity in the robotics field early and recruited students who had won top honours in a competition for robotics technology. He also encouraged the Thai government to embrace homegrown talent, and their products, to realise its Thailand 4.0 vision.
In Vietnam, Robot 3T is one of the leading research and manufacturing startups for robotics and automation. Founded in 2014, its vision was to provide efficient and affordable solutions for SMEs in Vietnam, giving them access to technological innovations and improving competitiveness. Robot 3T has gone from strength to strength, staunchly supported by Vietnamese SMEs eager to use domestic technologies. Additionally, the startup has managed to remain affordable in an industry which is otherwise extremely costly, especially for small and medium-sized businesses. Its products are developed specifically for the SME sector in Vietnam, of which foreign competitors have a limited understanding, thus giving them the competitive edge. If Robot 3T can keep up with research & development, and continue to produce robots that replace people for dangerous work, its place in the market will be assured.
The applications of robotics and AI are infinite. From elderly healthcare to serving food, to carrying out dangerous work, robots have a place in our future. As demonstrated by GleeTrees, CT Asia Robotics and Robot 3T, it is essential to adapt to local markets to thrive in the region and push research and development forward.
Businesses also have a part to play in preparing their employees for the inevitable arrival of AI to the workforce. Getting staff ready by deploying resources wisely, automating with purpose and ensuring proper training is provided are critical to their success. Finally, remembering that no technology can replace human empathy is vital to keeping customers and staff satisfied and feeling secure in the business. However, if companies take the right steps and welcome the future with confidence, the results look promising for robotics in Southeast Asia.