A robot transports food to diners at during the novel coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai, China on March 19 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ALY SONG
A robot transports food to diners at during the novel coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai, China on March 19 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ALY SONG

Shanghai — A shortage of workers and restrictions on human contact because of the coronavirus pandemic is driving up demand for service robots in China, potentially boosting a sector that has struggled to scale up commercially.

Venture capitalists with expertise in the robotics sector have said they are anticipating orders from China to rise significantly this year, based on interest since the end of January when the virus began spreading in China.

That could take the use of service robots from novelties that deliver food and drink in restaurants and hotels to an army that performs essential functions in hospitals bound by strict no-contact rules.

“The healthcare segment has been really hot,” said Emil Jensen, vice-president of China sales for Denmark-based Mobile Industrial Robots, which makes customisable robots that are used both in hospitals and on factory floors.

“We are seeing a many-, many-fold increase in new demand from hospitals, and a lot of people are calling us for the first time,” Jensen said. Among those in demand are disinfectant robots, which cast UV lights across a room to kill germs.

“Compared to the robots you see in manufacturing plants, these seemed like gimmicks with nothing unique about them,” Gong Peng, deputy dean at Shenzhen University General Hospital, said. However, once the virus hit, various companies donated disinfectant and food delivery robots to the hospital, proving their usefulness both in preventing virus transmission and managing supplies.

Before the robots were introduced, “every time a nurse wanted to deliver food to a patient, he or she had to wear a protective suit that would take 10 minutes to put on,” said Gong. “That was when protective gear supplies were really tight, so the robots helped us a lot.”

Shanghai-based Keenon Robotics, which has long sold robots that deliver food to customers at restaurants such as hotpot chain Haidilao, said it is accelerating plans to start selling medical robots. “We had been planning this for the past year, but the virus has caused us to speed things up,” said CEO Li Tong in an interview.

Beijing-based Yunji Technology, which makes delivery robots, and Shanghai-based TMIRob, which makes disinfectant robots, have increased distribution in the wake of the virus, according to investor Yu Chen, the MD of venture capital firm Yunqi Capital.

Outside China, Denmark-based UVD Robots, which also makes UV disinfectant robots, announced a distribution deal with a Chinese medical device supplier that will help bring its robots to hospitals across China.

Yu, who estimates that Chinese companies have sold about 15,000 service robots since 2018, said he expects orders for delivery and disinfectant robots to increase three-fold this year.

Factory automation

Along with the service robots, the Covid-19 pandemic could spur demand for more automation at factories.

Many Chinese semiconductor plants located in the virus epicentre of Wuhan have run continuously throughout the outbreak, which chip industry experts attribute to their highly automated production processes.

Still, the virus itself also presents an obstacle to widespread, long-term adoption of automation because of the economic stress it is imposing on many companies.

Huan Liu of Mujin, which makes intelligent, robot sorting and picking systems, said companies must often spend millions of dollars for a basic automation project, which can take six to 12 months to complete.

“For new customers, it depends on which factor is stronger,” said Liu. “The need to replace labour during the virus, or the need to balance the budget as sales go down during the virus.”

Reuters