Robots are taking over China’s warehouses

Business & Technology

The robots are here, and they are taking over China’s warehouses. With the rapid growth of ecommerce and the rising costs of labor, the domestic warehousing industry is turning to automated equipment.

Illustration by Alex Santafe.

The robots are here, and they are taking over China’s warehouses. With the rapid growth of downstream industries such as ecommerce and logistics and the rising costs of land, labor, and raw materials, the domestic warehousing industry is turning to automated equipment to improve efficiency and manage the increased workload. After years of technical build-up, China’s logistics robots are now entering the stage of large-scale commercial use.

There are two types of logistics robots working in China’s warehouses:

  • Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), used for tasks such as transportation, handling, sorting, and storage, but dependent on predefined paths and (often) operator oversight.
  • Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), mainly forklifts and mobile (e.g. wheeled) robots navigating via QR code scanning, which can independently navigate their environments, and are capable of autonomous analysis of production processes.

According to a domestic research institute, in 2021 a total of 61,100 AMRs were sold in China, a year-on-year increase of 58.17% (a different industry group reported total sales of 72,000 units). AMRs are being used to manufacture lithium batteries, new energy vehicles, photovoltaics, semiconductors, and in various other industries.

New robots are not just in warehouses: While cleaning and sweeping robots are rapidly increasing in popularity, earlier this month a Chinese robotics company, Youibot 深圳优艾智合机器人, announced the launch of ARIS-8848, the world’s first scientific investigation AMR that can operate in high altitudes. On May 4, ARIS-8848 successfully completed a mission to scale Mount Everest.

The context

Investors have been scrambling to fund China’s new robotics companies:

  • According to data from the China Mobile Robot Industry Alliance, there were 29 financing events in 2021 for the domestic industrial application of mobile robots, with total investment in excess of 4 billion yuan ($600.44 million).
  • Quicktron Intelligent Technology 快仓智能, manufacturer of a range of warehouse robots, raised nearly 1 billion yuan ($150.11 million) in round C financing by the end of 2020. In 2021, Quicktron provided 236 automated vehicles for a medical warehouse in Guangdong province, the largest robotic pharmaceutical center in China.
  • In 2021, HC Robotics 慧仓科技 completed round A financing of nearly 100 million yuan ($15.01 million), to be used for team expansion and mass production of automated storage and sorting equipment.
  • In February this year, Multiway Robotics 劢微机器人, manufacturer of various handling robots, received over 100 million yuan ($15.01 million) in A2 round financing, to be used for product R&D, team building, and business expansion.
  • In late April, J-Elephant 北京捷象灵越科技, manufacturer of autonomous forklift robots, raised nearly 100 million yuan ($15.01 million) of angel and pre-A round financing, to be used for product R&D, talent acquisition, and mass production capacity building.
  • In early May, VisionNav Robotics 未来机器人, manufacturer of autonomous forklifts and tractors, received 500 million yuan ($75.05 million) in round C financing, to be used for R&D and marketing.

The takeaway

The era of the full industrial application of robots has arrived, and China’s warehouses are running Chinese-made robots.

The domestic robotics industry is now in the process of developing a third generation of industrial robots. Manufacturers are working on product standardization for consistent production, assembly, and quality; and on reducing production costs.

And they are expecting not only for domestic demand to explode, but to reap even richer profits in overseas markets: High labor costs in countries like the U.S., Japan, and South Korea are a glittering prospect.