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T-Robotics Robotics

T-Robotics is the leading manufacturer of vacuum robots used in Flat Panel Display (FPD) and semiconductor production processes. It specializes in medium and large-sized industrial robots that operate in ultra-high vacuum and high-temperature conditions. Based on its technical expertise in industrial robotics, T-Robotics has also expanded into personal service and medical care robots.

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Vacuum Robot Leader Looks Ahead Toward the Future of Robotics

Advancing our lives with human-centered industrial and personal robots

The electronics display market is largely divided between the display panel and the display equipment segments.

In the 2000s, the US and Japan dominated the equipment segment, at a time when displays were increasingly incorporated into a wide range of electronic devices, whereas South Korean firms had control over the display panel segment only.

Korean display panel companies had to rely heavily on overseas equipment manufacturers, as display equipment was an indispensable part of the panel manufacturing process.

Display equipment purchase and maintenance fees thus took up a large chunk of revenues generated by Korean panel makers. These companies also had to halt the production line whenever the equipment was not working, until the American or Japanese manufacturer came to fix the issue.

Ahn Seung-wook, founder and CEO of T-Robotics, cites this overdependence on display equipment makers as a main driver behind his decision to quit his job as a robotics engineer at Samsung Heavy Industries and begin his own venture in 2004.
Ahn believed that Korea must be able to produce display equipment on its own turf to become a leading country in the global display market.

To this end, and based on his own expertise in robotics, Ahn decided to focus on making so-called “vacuum robots,” essential in the evaporation stage of display manufacturing.

The evaporation stage requires a vacuum environment, without any particles present, as the display becomes defective when unwanted substances adhere to the display glass, ultimately lowering the production yield rate.

The vacuum robots operate in such vacuum or high-temperature manufacturing environments where human activity is not possible.

Following years of vigorous research and development, T-Robotics successfully developed Korea’s first LCD (liquid crystal display) vacuum robot, and since 2009 has been developing an 11th-generation LCD vacuum robot jointly with the California-based global leader in the semiconductor and display equipment sector.

“Generation after generation, LCD production equipment becomes bigger and bigger. But the Japanese companies that previously dominated the market failed to create robots suitable for such large equipment at the right time,” noted Ahn.

He added, “T-Robotics could stand in the same ranks as the Japanese firms in the global market when the leader in the display equipment segment officially selected T-Robotics as its business partner in 2012.”

Contents

  • [Product and Value Proposition] Robots Operating in High Vacuum and High Temperature Environments
    T-Robotics specializes in vacuum robots that transfer glass substrates within a flat panel display (FPD) manufacturing chamber. The company produces mid- to large-sized robots and robotic systems compatible with sixth- to 11th-generation FPD equipment.

    There are two types of glass transfer robots, the atmospheric type and the vacuum type, with the latter requiring more advanced technology for development.

    The vacuum-type robots are designed to operate in vacuum environments such as during the chemical vapor deposition (CVD), physical vapor deposition (PVD) and etching processes.

    The company’s vacuum robots are fit to operate in ultra-high vacuum (10-3 to 10-7 Torr) and high temperature (higher than 500°C) settings.

    In such extreme conditions, the robots may inadvertently generate fine particles that can hinder the production process. To prevent such risk, T-Robotics came up with a technology that uses belts and bearings of special materials to minimize the formation of any unwanted fine particles. The robots are designed with a cooling system to allow them withstand the high temperatures as well.

    The FPD substrate in the display manufacturing process must be transported without vibration. As the substrate is extremely thin, with thickness of less than 0.5mm, it is vulnerable against any physical impact during the transportation stage.

    To prevent any unwanted cracks forming on the glass substrate, T-Robotics has developed proprietary robotic technologies in the areas of super-precise position control, vibration control and routing.

    The company currently holds 35 robotics technology patents in numerous countries including China, Japan, Korea and the US.

    T-Robotics vacuum robots used in CVD equipment

    T-Robotics supplies vacuum robots to domestic and overseas display makers, including its key American business partner.

    Since 2012, T-Robotics’ has been supplying vacuum robots to the US company, which is still its most important client, accounting for more than 70% of the company’s annual revenue.

    With T-Robotics’ vacuum robots, its US partner manufactures display production equipment, which is in turn used by global display firms such as Samsung Display, LG Display and BOE Technology.

    T-Robotics also supplies its products to Samsung Display and LG Display directly.

    “The main industry players began to recognize our technology when we started supplying our robots to the global leader in the display equipment segment. As a strategic partner of the global leader in the field, we will continue to grow with the industry,” said Ahn.

    T-Robotics will also begin making robots for the semiconductor production process this year, further pushing its revenue growth.

    The company has built semiconductor facilities and extended semiconductor cleanrooms at its Osan factory last December. The semiconductor facilities can make 30 billion won ($26.4 million) worth of robots annually, according to the company representative.

    Vacuum robots are used in 1. PE CVD, 4. Exposure and 6. Etching stages
  • [Market Position] Unrivaled Position in Making 11th-Generation LCD Robots
    The market entry barrier for display manufacturing vacuum robots is set high, as it requires an advanced level of robotics technology such as robot mechanism design and maintaining purity under vacuum conditions.

    As a result, 97% of the global market for FPD vacuum robots last year, according to T-Robotics estimate, is shared among three major companies: Japan’s Daihen (36%), T-Robotics (31%) and Japan’s Sankyo (30%).

    Although the overall market share is almost evenly divided among the three players, T-Robotics leads with the segment of LCD vacuum robots for 11th-generation display equipment with 100% market share.  

    “T-Robotics is the only company in the world that makes large-scale robots used in the CVD stage of the display manufacturing process,” a company official explained.

    T-Robotics Scissors-type vacuum robot
  • [Competitive Edge] Meticulous Customization According to Client’s Technology
    As the equipment used in FPD manufacturing process is extremely costly, extending up to tens of millions of dollars per production line, equipment manufacturers are concerned about the reliability of the robots used in the process.

    T-Robotics meets the needs of the equipment manufacturers with quick adaptation of its robots to suit the equipment’s latest technological requirements.

    Its vacuum robot used for display equipment exemplifies the company’s competitive edge in addressing client needs. This type of robot was jointly developed in 2009 with its US partner, which was making large LCD production equipment at the time.

    “The robot weighs as much as 11 tons and was designed to withstand the panel’s heavy weight. This is the robot that we exclusively supplied to our partner in the US,” said Ahn.

    The story is the same for robots used for OLED equipment. OLED equipment is also becoming larger as it evolves from sixth to eighth generation. T-Robotics was the quickest to develop robots for eighth-generation OLED equipment.

    To be able to transport the larger-sized display, the payload or the carrying capacity of the robots must also be heavier. Specifically, it is important for the robot to withstand the weight of OLED mask used during the CVD process.

    Ahn said that “the masks used for sixth-generation OLED equipment were only 80 kg. But now in the eighth generation, they weigh more than 360 kg.”

    The company’s Japanese competitors such as Sankyo also produce robots customized according to client needs. But as these companies are much larger, T-Robotics thinks they are less agile and thus more likely to deliver the robots on time.  

    Moreover, when making a sales pitch to existing and potential clients, T-Robotics mobilizes not only its sales team but also those in technology functions such as design, manufacturing and control.

    Ahn believes the client’s decision-making process becomes more fluid when its working-level employees in the design departments have direct meetings with the client.

    “We run through such processes with the client before adjusting the size of our robots according to the needs of their equipment,” said Ahn.  

    T-Robotics’ Dessert-bot writes letters on a cake
  • [Valuation] 2021 EPS Expected to Triple 2020 Value
    T-Robotics posted a revenue of 66.4 billion won ($58.6 million) and an operating profit of 3.5 billion won ($3.1 million) last year. Revenue grew 25.4% from 2019 while profit turned positive.

    The company saw a rise in demand for its products in 2020 despite the global pandemic.

    “We expect 2021 to record higher sales figures as Chinese companies are increasing investment in OLED display panels,” said a company spokesperson.

    The company posted a net loss in 2019, and remained in the red in 2020, with a total loss of 1.2 billion won ($1.1 million).

    “Last year’s fire at our Osan factory created a temporary loss on our financial statement,” said a financial representative.

    Having listed in 2018, the company’s share price has seen sustained growth since March 2020. Its stock price hit an all-time high of 12,000 won on Feb. 18 of this year and the company’s market valuation as of Mar. 25 was 129.9 billion won ($114.7 million).

    Financial analysts in Korea are projecting a much higher earnings per share (EPS) for the company going forward due to diversification into semiconductor robots and commercialization of service robots.

    According to Kiwoom Securities, this year’s expected EPS is 403 won ($0.36), more than three times last year’s estimate of 124 won ($0.11).

    Overhaul service revenue is also expected to improve profitability this year. As part of the service, the robot’s key components such as the actuator, motor and cooler are disassembled and repaired. For vacuum robots, overhauls are conducted every two years.

    CEO Ahn remarked: “T-Robotics expects improved profitability this year with the number of overhauls set to see a big increase from only a few dozen last year.”
  • [Growth Potential] New Growth Engines
    T-Robotics is expanding into personal service and medical robots based on its technical know-how of industrial robots. The company’s range of personal service robots currently under research and development include ambulatory rehabilitation robots, food tech robots and autonomous transportation robots for smart factories.

    First, there is the Healbot that assists rehabilitation of stroke patients. Healbot is an exoskeleton robot that helps patients walk after they are done with hospital care.

    Healbot is running clinical tests at major hospitals in Korea such as Asan Medical Center, and is expected to be in full use at the hospitals within the next two to three years according to Ahn.  

    For development of the exoskeleton robot, T-Robotics signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Swiss tech startup MyoSwiss AG. Established in 2017, MyoSwiss is a company with wearable “soft suit” robotics technology that aids in the muscular development of soldiers.

    The soft suit technology is also expected to be used in physical therapy for patients rehabilitating at home, as well as for the elderly.  

    The company is also focusing on autonomous transportation robots used in smart factories. T-Robotics has established a joint venture Anro with Japan’s autonomous robot company ZMP.

    Anro developed and commercialized an autonomous robot named CarriRo for logistics support. This robot can transport goods on its own, thereby reducing laborers’ workload.

    T-Robotics is also strengthening investments on food tech robots that are used for the automated preparation of food and beverages.

    It has developed a robot called Drip-bot that automates the drip coffee-making process. In Seoul’s Seoungsu-dong area, T-Robotics also opened up a cafe named BotBotBot, where the company is running a pilot program on its Drip-bot.

    There is also the Dessert-bot that can write letters or draw pictures of the customer’s choice on their cakes.

    “We will see more adoptions of food tech as our society is becoming more contactless. Our robot cafe will act as a flagship store showcasing the company’s latest technological advancements,” said Ahn.   

    “Some large retail companies are asking whether we can help them create cafes under a similar concept,” he added.
  • [Corporate Culture] An Agile and Truly Tech-driven Organization
    T-Robotics puts a heavy focus on technology and its engineering talents, believing that having a competitive technological edge is the best way to win over large Japanese conglomerates such as Daihen and Sankyo.

    “All 120 employees put their heads together every day, working to develop new technologies that will push us beyond the competition,” said Ahn.

    The company’s management positions are filled by technology experts who joined T-Robotics as founding members.

    Lee Soo-jong, the vice president and CTO of T-Robotics, has a degree in mechanical engineering from Seoul National University. He worked at Samsung Electronics before joining the company.

    T-Robotics offers stock incentives to its top management. Ha Tae-gon, senior managing director of technology and Jeong Hae-yoon, vice president of business support, respectively hold 20,000 and 80,000 shares in the company as stock options. They can exercise their rights to the stock options until March 2023.

    In addition, T-Robotics provides financial support for the higher education of its employees, allowing those with associate degrees to study at university.
  • [Corporate Governance] Positive Stock Outlook with 3.5% Employee Ownership
    T-Robotics’ largest shareholder group is Ahn and affiliated persons, who hold a combined stake of 28.5%.

    The asset management firm Asset One had held a 6.5% stake, most of which it sold in the stock market in January. The firm now holds only 0.2% of the company’s shares.

    Of note, the employee stock ownership association purchased 250,000 shares at the end of last year. The association had previously held 47,100 shares only, or 0.4% of the total, in possession as of September 30 last year.

    The number of shares held by the employees as of end-March 2021 has increased to around 410,000 shares or a 3.5% stake in the company.

    The newly acquired stocks are locked up for a year before they can be sold again in the market, implying that T-Robotics employees are expecting the stock price to move upward.

    According to a spokesperson from the association, “We are confident that our company, based on its track record as South Korea’s only manufacturer of mid- and large-sized vacuum robots and globally competitive technology, will continue to succeed in new areas of business.”

By Dong-Hyun Kim; edited by Daniel Cho (3code@hankyung.com)