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Chinese company wants robot to apprentice in Japan

Smiling Pangolin steps up challenge to SoftBank's Pepper

Smiling Pangolin robots are ready to serve.

TOKYO -- Chinese robot maker Suzhou Pangolin Robot has firmly set its sights on challenging SoftBank Robotics, the market leader for service robots and creator of Pepper. 

"Our rival is Pepper," said Song Yugang, CEO of Pangolin, which established a Japanese subsidiary in April and has already supplied robots to Huis Ten Bosch, a theme park in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture.

Bull in the pen

Robots with the visage of a smiling woman work at the cafeteria in Pangolin's head office in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province. One of them delivered a meal this reporter ordered and then turned around and cruised back to the kitchen. 

"Customers can get a feeling for the attractiveness of our robots when they see them here," said Ding Jinsong, Pangolin's chief technology officer.

At a plant on the same premises, hundreds of similar robots were lined up for shipment to other cafeterias across the country. 

Founded in 2006, Pangolin produces service robots for the restaurant and hotel industries, among others, with each priced around 30,000 yuan ($4,377). The company has a workforce of 110 and logged 12 million yuan in sales in 2016, and its CEO is very optimistic about the future. "We will boost our sales to 150 million yuan in 2017," Song said.

The technology behind Pangolin's robots is basic. They are primarily designed to wait tables and carry goods, whereas Pepper is equipped with artificial intelligence and can have simple conversations with people. 

But Song's bullish sales projection is based on the fact that Pangolin is set to release a variety of robots equipped with mapping functions that enable them to recognize their whereabouts. Via a sensor system, the newest models can measure distances and respond appropriately while moving, greatly increasing their ability, and thus, value.  

In addition, the new robots will have a 20-inch liquid crystal display that allows them to provide simple directional instructions, and some are equipped with USBs for connecting to printers and card readers. A reception robot is expected to be priced at about 180,000 yuan.

China's working age population began to decrease in 2012, and the country is beginning to feel the effects of a labor shortage. In light of this, service robots are seen as a boon industry as demand is expected to grow. 

"Look at drones. You should abandon conventional ideas in a business when demand for something explodes," Song said, explaining his target of a tenfold increase in sales.

Yet, Song believes that that alone will not guarantee growth. "Service robots have been treated as mascots to attract people. But toylike robots cannot last long," Song said, noting that Pangolin needs to continue to improve its technology.

Pangolin has signed a memorandum of understanding for mutual cooperation with Kikuchi Seisakusho, a Japanese manufacturer of metal molds and robots listed on the Jasdaq stock market. Pangolin is considering assembling parts and modules into robots at Kikuchi's plant.

"We can learn know-how for mass production matching Japan's quality control level," Song said, referring to the significance of the accord with Kikuchi.

Kikuchi President Isao Kikuchi said the tie-up with Pangolin will "enable us to reinforce our growing robot business and gain a foothold for advancing into China, where demand for robots is expanding."

Tapping local strength

Pangolin will also accelerate joint studies with Japan's University of Electro-Communications, with which it engaged in research programs before the company established its subsidiary in the country. 

The company wants to strengthen its relationship with the national university, but it also has its eye on recruiting Japanese workers. 

"If there are promising companies that emerge from universities, we will invest in them," Song said.

Pangolin will also reinforce its relationship with Huis Ten Bosch, the Dutch theme park located on Japan's westernmost island of Kyushu. Hapi-robo st, a company founded by Huis Ten Bosch for its robot-related services, has invested in Pangolin Robot Japan.

Pangolin wants to sell more robots to Huis Ten Bosch and its parent and travel agency H.I.S., Song said.

Pangolin robots still have room for technological improvement, Kazuhiko Yoshida, chief operating officer at hapi-robo, said. But he added, "Pangolin's positive attitude toward improving its technology should be appreciated. The company also has strengths that are not available at Japanese companies, including original and bold ideas."

Many Chinese companies are known for their ability to quickly absorb technology and management's fast decision-making. Pepper should not underestimate this up-and-coming challenger. 

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