China's mobile robots attract big money

The Chinese robotics market is surging as the country seeks to bring automation onshore.

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ForwardX

A Beijing-based robotics firm specializing in warehouse and logistics automation recently upped its overall funding to $100 million. ForwardX Robotics, which makes autonomous mobile robots for materials handling, recently announced the completion of its Series C. 

The funding is part of a broader narrative playing out in China, where the domestic robotics sector has soared thanks to an onshoring push by the government and heavy investment in the country's tech sector. Since 2016 the country has nearly tripled its output of robots by unit. Meanwhile, Chinese robotics developers have seen more than 40% year-on-year revenue growth.

In general, the robotics market is hot right now thanks to heavy demand and labor disruptions partly brought on by COVID-19; however, the growth of the Chinese robotics sector marks a major shift over the past five years globally. China has long been a net importer of foreign industrial robots to support its manufacturing infrastructure, but the Made in China 2025 plan has made domestic automation development a top priority. The trend isn't exactly new. Back in 2018, Jeremie Capron, Director of Research at ROBO Global, a benchmark index series tracking robotics and AI companies, told us about the brisk pace of growth in Chinese automation: 

"China is home to the largest and fastest-growing robotics market on earth. Chinese government contracts, such as the Made in China 2025 plan, are fueling R&D into AI technologies and its investments are now rivaling Silicon Valley startups. So far, Chinese activity in robotics and AI is on a rampage and there are no signs of a slowdown in innovation."

If there was any doubt that growth would continue, it can be laid to rest. By some estimates, China now exports more robots than the U.S. 

ForwardX is illustrative of the trend. Only 7 months after the close of its $63-million Series B round, the latest round of funding brings ForwardX to approximately $100 million in total investment since its founding in 2016.

"Our latest round of funding contributes to the positive momentum we have been building over the past 24 months. With a growing market share across our key territories, we look forward to continuing to deliver transformational results to our current and future customers," Founder and CEO Nicolas Chee says. "While previously we've been focused on the domestic Chinese market, 2021 has brought us more success outside of China. We're really looking forward to making our solutions available to a wider audience and cementing our position as a dominant player in North and South America, Asia, and Europe."

Not surprisingly, the company has ambitions to expand and plans to use the new capital in part to increase its deployment capabilities in key markets, such as the US market, and expand its sales reach into new markets. ForwardX is opening an office on the East Coast as well as in Tokyo, which might be read as a shot across the bow of two once-dominant robotics powerhouses.

"It's an exciting time for us and the industry as a whole. COVID-19 made it difficult to expand overseas during 2020, but this year has brought us a lot more success in that regard," says ForwardX's COO, Yaxin Guan. "E-commerce in the US has seen its 18-month spike become the new base level resulting in accelerated demand for automation, and, with this round of funding, we're in a better position to deliver quality solutions to North American customers."

So far the company has deployed fleets of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to partners like JD Logistics, SF DHL Supply Chain China, TCL Electronics, ITOCHU Logistics China, and Dongfeng Motor Corporation. LinkedIn China dubbed ForwardX a Top 13 Startup.

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