In a move set to benefit industrial giants such as LG, Samsung and Hyundai, the South Korean government has awarded a $2.7 billion investment to its local robotics industry. Korea hopes to make a name for itself with its next-gen industrial robotisation that could offer stiff competition to the Japanese robotics industry on the longer run.
The new program, initiated by South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, comes just weeks after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a policy to revive the Japanese economy by tripling the size of its robot manufacturing market. The policy, dubbed the “robot revolution”, will also see Japan host a Robot Olympics alongside the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
According to a report in the Korea Joongang Daily, the new South Korean government program is also a response to the US government’s $2.2 billion Advanced Manufacturing Partnerships Program and the EU’s Horizon 2020 policy. A key focus of the new South Korean policy will be the development of robots for disaster recovery and rescue operations.
According to the most recent data from the International Federation of Robotics, South Korean factories in 2012 employed 396 robots for every 10,000 workers – higher than any other country, and well ahead of Japan and Germany, which recorded figures of 332 and 273 respectively.
In a typical month, 150,000 sheets of glass pass through LG Display’s factory in Paju, close to the North Korean border, with only a few humans in attendance. An army of robots coats the glass substrates with a series of layers, transforming them into LCD panels for use in devices including Apple MacBook computers and LG Electronics smartphones.
“Today, when we make an LCD panel, we have to use a glass substrate 2.5m long, with a thickness of 0.5mm,” says Hur Yeon-ho, head of factory automation for LG Display. “There’s no way that people can carry it. So of course we need to use robots.”
The extensive investment in robotics by LG Display and Samsung Display has helped them to forge ahead of Japanese rivals to become the world’s leading producers of digital screens. It has also contributed to South Korea’s world-leading level of industrial robotisation.
The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy in a press release said that Korea should follow the global trend of integrating robot technologies in existing manufacturing industries in the short term and invest in robots that solve social problems in the longer term, meaning rescue robots, health care robots and advanced manufacturing robots.
Korea will put about $78 million into building basic R&D infrastructure specifically for disaster recovery and rescue robots, providing prototype test beds for other government ministries which may have demand for such robots.
Each robot development project will have a task force, and the Industry Ministry will implement a program that benchmarks the Darpa Robotics Challenge program, a disaster robot development contest led by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), to focus investment on winning projects. The ministry said it is also discussing with Darpa to send Korean robot talents to the contest to receive training there.
Citing policies from the world’s leading robot developers like the United States, Japan and the European Union, the government is planning to build a healthcare town where automated robots assist senior citizens, and a robot business zone in which manufacturers test out robot parts and a smart factory system. Both districts will be completed by 2019.
“Existing industries’ demand for robots should expand in a bid to take the local robot industry a step further to become Korea’s next generation stronghold,” said Kim Jae-hong, first vice minister for industry. “We will support the robot industry to secure more source technologies and tighten its connection with other industries.”
The ministry’s previous plan, which ran from 2008 through 2012, produced practical artificial-intelligence robots like small cleaning robots and surgical robots. It formed a small industry worth about $1.9 billion and attracted private sector investment comprising 54 percent of total robot investment last year, among which only 14 percent came from large conglomerates. Such robots also generated exports of about $600 million in 2012.