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Country Insight: Taiwan gets smart about manufacturing

Taiwan is a relatively large island nation a couple of hundred kilometres off the coast of China. 

It has a population of less than 25 million and its economy is one of the largest in Asia, and many people around the world associate Taiwan with advanced electronics manufacturing.

Some of the largest and most well-known Taiwanese companies include:

  • Hon Hai Precision, better known as Foxconn, the contract manufacturer which makes iPhones and iPads for Apple;
  • Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, another Apple partner which makes chips;
  • Quanta Computer, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of notebook computers;
  • Acer, another computer and computer peripherals manufacturer;
  • HTC, the communications technology giant which recently sold its smartphone-making division to Google; and
  • Delta Electronics, which specialises in industrial and infrastructure technologies.

Just around 50 years ago, the agriculture sector accounted for around half of Taiwan’s economy. 

Now, agriculture accounts for only 2 or 3 per cent of Taiwan’s annual gross domestic product of more than $560 billion.

The main industries are, of course, electronics, communications and information technology products. Petroleum refining and armaments manufacturing sectors are also significant, as is chemicals, textiles and industrial machinery.

Taiwan does not have much in the way of natural resources, which is probably why it has developed in the way it has.

The speed with Taiwan went from being a largely agrarian nation to an advanced industrial economy is sometimes referred to as the “Taiwan Miracle”, and together with South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, the country is regarded as one of the “Four Asian Tigers” or “Four Asian Dragons”, because of its economic strength and entrepreneurial dynamism.

Recent data about Taiwan’s industrial sector show a general steadiness – some reports show a slight slowdown while others indicate some growth.

What’s probably more significant to Taiwan’s future growth, however, is the increasing competition from other countries in the region as well as some changes in the US technological landscape.

Apple, for example, is looking to design its own chips, which could mean its current suppliers losing their orders. Qualcomm has already suffered this loss, and companies such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing could also lose Apple.

However, it’s not likely Apple – or any large company – would risk its operation by putting all its eggs in one basket. So, even if it takes some or most of its chip business elsewhere and develop new partnerships, Apple is likely to maintain relations with Foxconn, TSMC and others.

Interestingly, although Taiwanese companies are increasingly utilising robots because they are now capable of intricate electronics manufacturing work, most of the suppliers of the robots are not from the country, with the notable exception of Techman and a few others, more of which below.

Foxconn is believed to have built tens of thousands of robots for its own use, but when a typical Taiwanese electronics manufacturer wants to buy some robots, it probably turns to Japanese companies such as Fanuc, or Yaskawa, or perhaps European companies like ABB, and Kuka – although Kuka is now technically owned by a Chinese company called Midea.

Another interesting, perhaps less well-known characteristic of the Taiwanese economy is that the vast majority of companies are small- and medium-sized businesses.

That might be surprising to some who are used to seeing business news stories about Taiwanese industrial giants such as Foxconn and TSMC, whose annual revenues are around £132 billion and $30 billion respectively.

SMEs are of particular interest to the robotics and automation sector now because they are increasingly becoming customers.

A new generation of robots are now affordable enough for SMEs and safe enough to work alongside, and even programming them is straightforward enough that you do not need any additional training to implement robotics technology into your process.

And it doesn’t have to be complicated electronics manufacturing the utilises robotics and automation. It can be the electronics packing and packaging sector.

Additionally, an even newer generation of robotics technology is emerging, with small-scale activity in mind.

These robots are even smaller than the collaborative robots we are used to seeing on this website – they are only slightly larger than the average kettle.

This would be an interesting area for us to look into in the future, but for now, we saw this example at Hannover Messe.

It’s a tiny delta robot which was being shown assembling an electronics device slightly larger than a calculator.

The company which was exhibiting it is called Robotro, from South Korea, and says its JRD Series robot (pictured below) can be used as a module in a smartphone assembly line.

Similar small-scale robotics and automation solutions are likely to become more widely used as components become more widely available and more affordable.

robotro small delta robot small
An example of the JRD Series of tiny delta robots from the Robotro company

Smart manufacturing in Taiwan

The Taiwan External Trade Development Council (Taitra) was present at the Hannover Messe and made a presentation highlighting some of the most interesting technologies and companies in the country, under the banner of “Taiwan Smart Manufacturing”.

Taitra presented “highly innovative solutions” in areas such as:

  • collaborative robots, or cobots;
  • 3D machine vision;
  • industrial internet of things; 
  • robot operating systems; and
  • embedded systems. 

Taitra also provided a general introduction to Taiwan’s smart manufacturing market.

Joe Chou, director of the Taiwan Trade Center in Dusseldorf, said: “Our strong presence here shows the important impact on global manufacturing of Taiwanese companies.

“Taiwan has the world’s number-one machine tool cluster, known as the ‘Golden Valley’.

“Together with our powerful IC design capabilities, our knowledge in integration of technologies such as robots, 3D machine vision and internet of things as well as robot operation and embedded systems, Taiwan has become a much sought-after partner for applications along the entire supply chain of intelligent machines internationally.”

At the press conference, five outstanding Taiwan companies shared their achievements in smart manufacturing:

Collaborative robots

Techman Robot, a well-known company in collaborative robot and vision technologies, presented its TM5, the world’s first collaborative robot featuring built-in visual recognition.

It perfectly integrates hands, eyes and brains into one system, which impressively improves the easiness of using industrial robots and remarkably reduces the cost and deployment time.

With the powerful built-in vision system, TM5 can see, think and work unitedly and smartly like a human.

Users can also use hand-guiding function to teach the robot – everyone, even those without robotic programming experience, can achieve a visual pick & place task within 5 minutes.

The TM5 complies with the ISO 10218 human-robot safety requirement and it can operate without safety fences in co-operation with machine operatives.

Machine vision

Solomon Group was established in 1973. It provides robots and machines with human-like vision and recognition capabilities by blending advanced 3D vision and the latest deep learning technologies.

Solomon AI Vision offers human-like, self-learning software to detect and inspect irregular patterns, defects and features, or object classifications. All that’s required is to provide samples for AI Vision to distinguish and learn; no code writing is necessary.

Solomon 3D Random Bin Picking is an intelligent, friendly and versatile solution that quickly automates any 3D pick-and-place applications, including complex-shaped objects in a random three-dimensional setting.

The software comes with a deep learning option that allows training time to be reduced by as much as 70 per cent.

Industrial internet of things 

Gallant Precision Machining, a Taiwan based high-tech company, has accumulated 40 years of experience in the manufacturing process and research and development field to provide semiconductor, FPD and relevant industrial precision machinery process equipment with intelligent automation total solutions.

Its “GPM Smart IoT Platform System” is an analysis and preventive maintenance system that combines intelligent machine learning, real-time capture and analysis to provide equipment health diagnosis.

Giving an answer to the question on how to collect and analyse valuable Big Data and use it effectively, GPM has become the fastest growing manufacturer of precision equipment in Taiwan.

Robot Operating System

Robot Operating system, commonly known as ROS, is the world’s largest robots open source platform and is widely used for mobile robots, industrial robots, probing robots, human-computer interaction robots, to autonomous cars and group robots.

AdLink Technology, a global provider of computing solutions that drives data-to-decision applications across industries, was the first member of the ROS-Industrial Consortium Asia Pacific.

With AdLink’s ROS controller, the integration of robotic arms, AGV, and monitoring the status of robots is easily achieved.

Embedded systems

DFI is a leading provider of high-performance computing technology across multiple embedded industries.

The company presented the DFI’s EC500-SD series, a high-performance and compact embedded system equipped with 6th Generation Intel Core i7/i5/i3 processors and Intel Q170 chipset.

It targets machine vision applications requiring high computing power and accurate real-time data transition with minimal footprint.

The industrial computers also provide large numbers of I/O ports and multiple PCIe/PCI expansion to empower vision, graphic, or motion cards.