"Korea is dependent on foreign countries for robot parts and software," said Moon Jeon-il, president of the state-run Korea Institute for Robot Industry Advancement (KIRIA), in an exclusive interview with BusinessKorea. Moon, who took office as CEO of KIRIA in January this year, went on to say, "However, the robotic industry in Korea has been making rapid progress thanks to active support from the government and continuous efforts by the industry and academia. He also noted that the technology level of the Korean collaborative robot sector has risen faster than those of other sectors. The following are excerpts from an interview with him. -- Ed.
Would you tell us about the global competitiveness of the Korean robot industry?
In the Korean robot industry, major users of manufacturing robots are large equipment industries, including automobiles and semiconductors. Service robots for medical rehabilitation and transportation are in the initial stage of market formation.
In the case of manufacturing robots, Korea’s competitiveness in such areas as parts, software and system integration (SI) is a little weak as the industry has focused largely on production of finished robots.
In particular, Korea is highly dependent on foreign countries for parts and software, while win-win cooperation between the upstream and downstream industries for robots is in its early stage. Korea is following foreign industry leaders rather than leading the global robot market as a whole.
However, the robotic industry in Korea has been making rapid progress thanks to active support from the government and continuous efforts by the industry and academia. According to an industry survey released in February 2018, the Korean intelligent robot sector’s technology level climbed from 80.6% of the level of the Japanese intelligent robot sector in 2015 to 85% in 2017. The results show that the Korean intelligent robot sector’s technology level rose faster than those of other sectors.
Please tell us about the major tasks facing the government and KIRIA to enhance the innovation capabilities of the Korean robot industry and create a robot ecosystem.
First of all, the process of applying robotic technology to the industrial world requires efforts to improve related regulations. Innovative collaboration among robot producers, client companies, regulatory agencies and industry experts is necessary to develop policies to promote the robot market and enhance the capabilities of robot companies.
Second, it is necessary to create demand through the expansion of an industrial demand base. In order to create a strategic market, the government needs to support the creation of demand (for example, through policies aimed at the diffusion of smart factories) that meets the global trends (the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Industry 4.0).
The government also needs to develop service robot models in promising application areas and actively create demand in the public sector in order to expand the robot markets. The market for service robots is still in its early stage of formation, but is expected to grow to US$45.7 billion by 2020.
On top of that, in order to promote the robot industry and expand the robot market, it is necessary to nurture system integration (SI) companies that create services by utilizing robots.
What policies do you think are needed for Korea to preempt the collaborative robot sector?
Collaborative robots are expected to show rapid growth in the future as they have strengths in terms of safety, flexibility, productivity and price competitiveness. Most major global companies have already completed the commercialization of collaborative robots. In Korea, large companies are making a foray into the collaborative robot market. For example, Hanwha Techwin and Doosan Robotics have entered the collaborative robot sector.
At present, no country stands out in the collaborative robot market. In other words, this sector is free from the influence of the dominant players in the existing manufacturing robot market. The Korean government recognized this fact and selected collaborative robots as a top priority in the Intelligent Robot Industrial Development Strategy announced on February 7. The government is seeking to secure design, control, and sensor technologies to ensure safety while at the same time preparing to establish safety standards. It is also drawing up policies to accelerate diffusion of collaborative robots.
Since February 2018, KIRIA has operated the Collaborative Robot Convergence Alliance to establish the Collaborative Robot Safety Inspection Guidelines. The alliance is a consultative body involving the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, the Ministry of Employment and Labor, and experts from the robot industry, academia and research institutes,
Under the guidelines, Doosan Robotics, which participated in the alliance on August 6, became the No. 1 operator in Korea to receive safety certification for its collaborative robot M1013. Besides, companies such as Hanwha Techwin and Hyundai Robotics are participating in the alliance, too.
Please tell us about KIRIA's efforts to accelerate the transformation of Korean manufacturing plants into smart factories.
Current smart factories give much weight to supporting the upper part of the production management system (MES). But we need to focus more on innovating “smart processes” that combine robots, the IoT and artificial intelligence. In other words, the innovation of the lower part of the MES, where actual data are generated, collected, and implemented, has become important. In this process, robots’ roles really matter.
Since 1996, KIRIA has been carrying out a project to turn manufacturing processes at small and medium-sized companies into smart processes through the use of robots. This project supports the introduction of robots to manufacturing processes. To stimulate corporate efforts towards smart factories, it uses such incentives as giving bonus points to companies that developed smart factory solutions.
In addition, in order for the Korean robot industry to grow and secure global competitiveness, robot producers are advised to share their platforms with system integration (SI) companies and client companies. Efforts are also needed to nurture SI companies in the same way as partner companies of robot producers.
What kind of support do you provide for Korean robot companies to advance into overseas markets?
First of all, the most promising robot market is China. As of 2016, China accounted for 29.6% of the world’s total manufacturing robot demand. In 2020, China’s share is expected to reach about 40%. KIRIA will establish the Korea Robotics Center (KRC) in China this year and use it as a base for Korean companies to advance into China.
In addition, we will also send a market development team to the ASEAN, India and Brazil, which are post-China markets expected to grow by over 20% annually. Through collaboration with local partner organizations, we will discover new markets and help Korean companies enter them with products tailored to the local needs.
We will also help Korean companies go global by opening and running Korean robot pavilions at overseas robot shows. This year, we participated in Automatica (June) in Germany and Innoprom (July) in Russia to introduce the Korean robot industry and create opportunities for Korean robot companies to enter overseas markets. We will take Korean robot producers to overseas exhibitions at least twice a year.
KIRIA is building a cooperation system with global certification organizations so that Korean companies can easily cope with issues related with certification and approval of robot products in overseas markets.
In December of 2016, the KIRIA signed an MOU with TUV SUD, a European testing and certification organization. This October we will sign a business agreement with China Certification & Inspection Co. (CCIC), the largest accredited testing organization in China.
What steps are you taking to raise social awareness of robots in the era of human-robot coexistence?
In manufacturing workplaces, safe collaborative robots are being commercialized. In daily life, nursing robots, guide robots, and companion robots are spreading.
Robots coexisting with humans are on a sharp rise. Safety and ethics will become a big issue because humans and robots coexist and cooperate as partners.
KIRIA took the lead in establishing the Collaborative Robot Safety Inspection Guidelines. We are also preparing the Robot Ethics Charter, which is an ethical guideline for creating a society in which robots coexist as a companion or a helper of humans that do not harm humans.