Thailand’s automation and intelligent robotics industry

Thailand’s automation and intelligent robotics industry has gone from strength to strength in recent years, driven by increasing demand from both domestic and overseas industries along with its well-established ecosystem.

The country’s globally competitive supply chains, most notably in the automotive, food and food processing, and electronics industries, have boosted the demand for industrial automation and robotics as businesses embrace their transformative effects on productivity. Thailand’s service robot industry has also grown by leaps and bounds with a proliferation of innovations addressing the more pronounced needs of caring for the elderly and providing healthcare services in the COVID-19 pandemic era.

Having already reached the advanced development stage for the Internet of Things, machinery, information and communication technology, and electronics, Thailand has strong foundations in the automation and robotics supply chain. Thailand also enjoys a large and passionate talent pool in robotics as well as progressive support from the government in the development of its intelligent robotics technology.

At present, Thailand’s US$20-23 billion robotics industry includes homegrown robots that incorporate AI, 5G connectivity, and cloud communications technologies to enable smart manufacturing.

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR)1, Thailand had the highest number of industrial robots within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2019, with roughly 3,000 units in operation accounting for almost 1% of the total 373,000 industrial robots installed globally.

With 45 industrial robots for every 10,000 employees in 2019, Thailand was the second largest market for robotics and automation in ASEAN after Singapore. Across Asia, the average number of industrial robots per 10,000 employees was 63.

The IFR predicts that the use of automated guide vehicles to serve logistical roles across factories, warehouses, and service providers such as hospitals will grow by around 60% annually to well over 700,000 units by 2022. Furthermore, local businesses are increasingly using automation and robotics for a wide range of processes, from welding and assembling, to dispensing and cleaning in industries as diverse as automotive, food and food processing, electronics, and plastics and rubber.

Thailand is home to the world’s most significant automotive producer, ranking top in ASEAN for overall vehicle production and 6th globally for commercial vehicle production in particular. The country is also one of the world’s most important producers of food and processed food. In electronics, it is the second-largest global producer of data storage units, including hard disk drives. As businesses across ASEAN look to become more automated and adapt to the frequent changes taking place in the post-pandemic era, the expansion of automation and robotics will provide substantial opportunities for local businesses and investors.

More importantly, Thailand is situated at the centre of one of the world’s most vibrant and fastest-growing collection of markets: the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand). As such, the robotics & automation industry in Thailand is poised for future growth as the industrial sectors in these countries adopt more robots and automated systems going forward.

A Well-Established Robotics and Automation Ecosystem

The multinational companies involved in Thailand’s global supply chain of key industries and investors have spearheaded the development of the country’s automation and robotics industry. A majority of the firms in the local automation and robotics industry are in the business of system integration and mechanical brain and software development.

Ever since the early stage of its development more than a decade ago, Thailand’s automation and robotics industry has continued to evolve into a comprehensive supply chain with less reliance on imports while also exporting finished robots and parts across Asia.

Over the years, Thailand has developed its capability to produce home-grown robots, giving birth to a vibrant startup scene. This is possible due to the creative ability of local entrepreneurs, as well as government support on both the demand and supply sides of the robotics and automation industry.

Realising the role of the automation and robotics industry in increasing the value of businesses, strengthening small and medium-sized enterprises, and driving economic growth, the Thai government has highlighted automation and robotics as one of the industries targeted under the “Thailand 4.0” vision. Two key pillars of the government’s commitment to fostering the development of the automation and robotics industry’s ecosystem are to promote R&D for supplying the industry with new innovations and to enhance the skill training for providing its talented human resources.

In a push to develop the automation and robotics industry, the Ministry of Industry, working through the Thai-German Institute, has collaborated with the country’s top science and engineering academies to run the Center of Robotics Excellence (CoRE)2. Among the key missions of the centre are encouraging the creation of robotics prototypes, promoting technology transfers from academia to industrial sectors, fostering technological networking internationally and developing related skills in human resources.

Prior to this, the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) established the Institute of Field Robotics (FIBO)3 which offers undergraduate and graduate programs in automation and robotics engineering and manages a number of research laboratories, including the Bio-Inspired and Educational Robotics Lab, the Micro Robotics Lab, and the Unmanned-Vehicles and Autonomous Robots for Exploration Laboratory (UVAX).

The Thai Automation and Robotics Association (TARA)4 is also playing a key role in developing Thailand’s automation and robotics industry. In addition to working extensively with the Thailand Board of Investment (BOI) and CoRE to foster multi-sector collaboration linkages, TARA has developed an ecosystem to support local investment in automation and robotics systems by providing a list of registered system integrators (SI), arranging training for local SI, and promoting design and integration for factory automation.

A Leading Innovator of Service and Field Robots

Thailand is not short of achievements in service and field robotics. Equipped with 5G, AI, cloud computing and sensors which enable robots to perceive and respond to the environment, Thai companies and academies have produced many robots to serve various functions in this sector.

Examples include caring robots for the elderly which can perform the tasks of providing constant monitoring, alerting caregivers and interacting with the elderly. In the agricultural sector, robots are used in smart farming to serve various functions from monitoring plantations to irrigation and harvesting. Meanwhile, medical robots have been utilised in many areas, from diagnosis and surgery, to rehabilitation and general services.

Back in 2017, Ramathibodi Hospital, a reputable medical school in Thailand, successfully performed Asia’s first robot-assisted brain surgery. Robot-assisted surgery has since been widely used for different operations. Robots have also played an important role in assisting patients’ rehabilitation and therapy, supporting children with autism spectrum disorder as well as refilling medical supplies and prescriptions.

The pandemic has also driven the development of Thai medical robots used to assist frontline medical practitioners and reduce the risk of infection. The robots allow doctors to speak with coronavirus patients through video chats and measure patients’ temperature without exposing themselves to the risk of infection.

A Large Pool of Passionate Talent

As a result of the government’s investment in educational resources in the fields of science and engineering, Thailand is currently producing around 80,000 new graduates each year (roughly one-fifth of all graduates) in fields related to automation and robotics industries.

Many Thai students have triumphed in global robotics contests such as the World RoboCup and the World Robot Olympiad5 in recent years. These achievements reflect not only their passion for robotics but also their competency in scientific studies particularly mechanics and both electrical and robotics engineering.

The Thai government continues to strengthen the skills of the country’s human resources by facilitating nationwide collaboration among CoRE, universities, research institutions and businesses to offer real-world work experience, skill development and robot prototyping. The collaboration allows those participating to leverage each other’s expertise to enhance the capacity of teachers to prepare students with the skills required in this fast-changing environment.