Weston Robot sees opportunities in crisis

Covid-19 has ramped up impetus for automating manual processes, with robots becoming more popular to cope with manpower shortage.

THEY do not tire easily, never complain and never get sick at the workplace.

Robots are rising in popularity during the pandemic, as Covid-19 ramps up impetus towards automating painstakingly manual processes such as temperature taking, safe distancing and disinfection.

Since the middle of the coronavirus outbreak, homegrown robot developer and supplier Weston Robot has seen its revenue triple that of the year before, with its order books packed till the end of this year, chief executive Zhang Yanliang told The Business Times.

Its new line of pandemic-related robots look to be more resilient than humans for these laborious, manual processes.

They can work 10-hour shifts for four consecutive weeks while surviving on just two hours of "sleep" (for regular maintenance).

From dusk to dawn, the robots can also accurately measure the distance between two people with just one glance and request passers-by to put on their masks if they are spotted without one.

What's more, it costs companies only about S$3,000 a month - or about S$8 per hour - to lease these safe-distancing robots from the Singapore-based company.

By pricing it as such, Dr Zhang hopes that the decision to lease these robots would be "relatively easy" for other companies, since what they pay is comparable to hiring additional manpower.

Another plus: using robots can help companies to reduce the risk of their employees getting infected with Covid-19, he added.

Subscription models like this also allow the company to convince more to come on board, reducing the barriers to entry as clients would not need to bear the entire upfront cost of purchasing the robot, said Dr Zhang.

The onus then falls on Weston Robot to clinch contracts that are for longer than 24 months, or require more than one robot.

"The return on investment for our robots depends on the terms of lease and the quantity of robots leased. The longer (clients) lease it from us and the more robots they sign up for, the faster we can break even," said Dr Zhang.

At the very least, if a company only leases one robot, it will take up to two years to break even, he added.

Early adopter

Being one of the early adopters in the space has thus brought Weston Robot some advantages. Government agencies, companies and organisations have already jumped on board.

Dr Zhang's robots are seen in the Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI), Marina South Pier as well as in university libraries.

At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in January, the team repurposed its robots and came up with a prototype of a disinfecting robot in just 10 days.

The team could move so fast because the company's core is in robot manufacturing and the development of core robotics modules, said Dr Zhang.

"We already had the building blocks, having made close to 40 robots in our factory," he added. These range from simple one-task robots to sophisticated ones - including those for grass cutting, construction and security.

However, he is candid about the challenges Weston Robot has faced during this time.

It had to deal with many delays due to supply chain bottlenecks during Covid-19, pushing back its launch by at least two months.

Key equipment like thermal cameras, batteries and 3D printed materials were held back, even though the robot's exoskeleton and wiring were already in place. This doubled the cost of production for the firm.

"Covid-19 has ramped up logistics cost, shipping cost, as well as component costs," noted Dr Zhang, adding that the time delay in the project also led the company to spend more on manpower.

But he expressed gratitude towards the Singapore government, in granting them an exemption to operate and work on their robots in its office during the lockdown.

The company also had technology input from the Infocomm Media Development Authority, and pilot adoption from MCI.

Now, buoyant on its success in the city-state, expansion is on the cards. Weston Robot is looking to venture into at least one or two more overseas locations - Chengdu, Boston, Taiwan and parts of the Middle East - over the next year, and set up a local sales office there.

But for a small hardware firm, scale might not be so easily achieved. The company will still need to tailor robots to suit local markets, customise specs to different regulations and invest huge amounts of capital upfront, said Dr Zhang.

He also places a strong emphasis on investing in fundamental research to build the company's foundation; spending up to 80 per cent of revenue on research and development.

He said: "When you don't have fundamental technology, it's almost impossible to rely on other countries or providers to give you a ready-to-use product to battle a new pandemic."

Access to new technologies is also important, said Dr Zhang. His investment vehicle, Lion City Angel Investment, is looking to take an equity stake in early-stage deeptech companies dabbling in niche complementary fields - for knowledge sharing and early access to technology.

Despite its strong capital plays, the company has not had any external investors so far. It is self-funded from a company he sold off 10 years ago.

The affable Dr Zhang, who completed his doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Nanyang Technological University, said that using his own money keeps him firmly on his toes and maintains his hunger for success.