Crunch Time for Chinese Robot Startups as Pandemic Brings Pain, Chances

With glowing blue eyes and trusting feline features, Chinese startup Elephant Robotics’ new robot cat appears happily oblivious to CEO Joey Song’s worries as he shows it off at the company’s Shenzhen laboratory. The main business of Elephant Robotics is the automation of factory assembly lines but this year, due to the coronavirus, revenue has plummeted by a third, leading the company to cut staff by a fifth.

“It’s just tough,” Song said. “We ‘d seen more than 30 people before.”

The firm is putting more energy into the robot cat project funded in December on Kickstarter because of the downturn. Reading its first large batch of 1,000 cats for sale, it hopes that interest in pet robots will increase with more consumers working from home.

“If industrial robots are unable to sell right now, we ‘re focusing on other robots to reduce the risks,” Song said.

As the pandemic forces hospitals, manufacturing and service companies as well as governments to look fresh and with new urgency for ways to minimize human contact, interest in robots has increased worldwide.

But in China, months ahead of other countries in reopening its economy and the world’s largest industrial robotics market, new business continues to be mainly confined to warehouse and disinfecting robotics. Most customers are now spooked too much by the uncertain business climate to invest in expensive factory gear, industry leaders say.

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