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Korean robotics industry picks up steam

Feb. 27, 2012 - 16:15 By Shin Hyon-hee
Korea’s robotics industry is picking up steam as government-led pilot programs are spurring sales and exports, while carving out new niches in the fledgling market.

About 200 local robotics firms are expected to have generated at least 2 trillion won ($1.77 billion) in output last year, an official at the Ministry of Knowledge Economy said Monday, citing preliminary data. The ministry plans to release the final figures as early as June.

Yet the tally is up about 12 percent from 2010 and more than 240 percent from 2008.

The ministry attributed the upbeat results to a 2011 pan-government scheme to cultivate robotics as one of the country’s key growth industries.

Seven ministries including industry, welfare and environment have been funneling in 15 billion won since then to expand the use of robotics into areas ranging from education and agriculture to medical and defense, shifting their focus from manufacturing.

The country had been shoring up the burgeoning industry by investing 75 billion won since 2002. But the funds were mostly channeled into developing assembly robots, officials said.

In last year’s pilot programs, robots were deployed for small-scale manufacturing, teaching, firefighting, demining, sewage repairs and patrolling danger zones, among other tasks.

The project led Curexo, a local startup, to add 3.53 billion won in sales by selling high-tech robotic equipment for artificial joint operations to hospitals in Korea and India.

In another development, Ilshim Global in August sealed two deals worth 4.4 billion won with Euroboats of Germany and Ezicom of France to supply a combined 20,000 units of window cleaning robots.

Other companies such as Yujin Robot, Gaha and ED are discussing exports with clients in countries like New Zealand, Finland and Denmark after demonstrating their products for health care and education services at nursing homes there.

“The programs helped Korean firms open up new markets, branch out abroad and boost the use of robots across industries,” the ministry said in a statement.

Seeking to expedite commercial production and induce more private investment, the economy ministry said it plans to select other promising developers for the 22.4 billion won initiative.

Korea tails Japan, Germany and the U.S. in the global robots industry, which is forecast to grow to $100 billion in 2018 from $5.7 billion in 2010, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

The Frankfurt-based industry body picked Korea as one of the most dynamic robot markets along with China and the ASEAN countries. In 2010, Korean firms sold some 23,500 robots at home and abroad, more than triple the 2009 level, it estimated.

“Huge investments made by the electronics industry and the motor vehicle industry were mostly responsible for this large increase in robot sales,” the IFR said.

Metra Martech, a London-based research firm, noted that the robotics industry helped create up to 5 million jobs worldwide in recent years and remains a major force behind employment growth.

The mainstay of the high value-added industry is also shifting to service robots, which help with household and office chores and other professional missions including surgery, navigation, milking, teaching and military operations, it added.

In December 2010, the ministry unveiled a comprehensive package to underpin the nascent service robotics industry. It will spend 30 billion won for development, commercialization, standardization and marketing by 2017.

By Shin Hyon-hee (