In the crowded space of enterprise robotics, the ability to secure key clients is a critical differentiator for companies. In the case of Hong Kong-based Rice Roboticsthe important order has come from SoftBank.
From January 2021, Rice robots, with their cute, cartoonish blinking eyes, are delivering 7-Eleven products to Softbank staff at the company’s new headquarters in Takeshiba, Tokyo. These robots are able to carry a 30kg payload and have a storage space of 39 x 27 x 34 cm.
Rice effectively allows delivery workers to leave customer orders at a designated location for robots to pick up, eliminating the need to navigate in and out of office buildings. The robots can work continuously for 12 hours and recharge within an hour.
Recognition from SoftBank and other customers convinced some investors to back Rice’s latest $7 million pre-Series A funding round. They include Alibaba Entrepreneur Fund, Soul Capital, Audacy Ventures, Sun Hung Kai & Company, and Cyberport HK. There is no lead investor in the round.
The funding, Rice said, will allow it to push further into Japan, which is now the company’s biggest source of revenue. Apart from SoftBank, his Japanese clients also include Toyota, Japan Post and Mitsui Group.
Japan has been a favorite destination for Chinese robotics companies looking to expand internationally, given its aging population and openness to new technology. For example, ByteDance-backed warehouse robot maker Syrius Robotics beat Japan at an early stage.
There is no doubt that South China is home to the largest hardware supply chains in the world. In fact, Rice makes its robots in Hong Kong instead of mainland China, where factories are plentiful and labor costs are lower.
The four-year-old company previously made its robots through an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) on the mainland but found that manufacturing in its hometown significantly brought down the unit cost of its robots, founder and CEO Rice said. Victor Lee said TechCrunch.
Bulk manufacturing in mainland China is more economical, although Rice’s production volume is too small to achieve economies of scale, Lee explained. In addition, the Hong Kong government actively trying to attract advanced manufacturing to diversify an economy that is losing its attractiveness as a financial hub for Asia.
Some of Rice’s new funding has been deployed to set up a production plant in Hong Kong. The facility, which covers an area of 13,000 square feet, has quadrupled the company’s annual production capacity from 500 to 2,000 robots.
With an initial market price of $9,000, Rice robots use the popular simultaneous localization and mapping technology, called SLAM, for navigation. A major advantage of SLAM is that it continuously compares sensor data with the given map, allowing the system to build an accurate and on-the-fly model of the environment and estimate the precise position of a robot.
Aside from service robots, Rice also offers a line of disinfection robots, which have seen increased demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, as have many other robotics businesses.
Want the best robotics news in your inbox every week? Sign up for Actuator here.