Japan has been at the forefront of robotics technology and has amazed the world with its robotics innovation for many years. Seven out of the 10 world’s leading industrial robotics companies are housed in Japan. Furthermore, it has the highest density of robot workers in the world. The market for service robotics is thriving, including the field of senior care. The country is the powerhouse of technologies such as machine vision, machine learning and artificial intelligence. These technologies are vital for the development of effective robotic hardware. The country’s industrial robot makers have produced more than 50 percent of robots supplied in 2017, which is 39 percent more than the year earlier.
There is no doubt that Japan is the sphere head in the field of industrial robotics as it is the number one exporter for robots in terms of shipments and number of operating units. The country also remains the testing ground for new applications of robotics. Companies such as Kawasaki, FANUC, OTC Daihen, Epson, Denso, and Mitsubishi are driving the development of industrial robotics in the country. Furthermore, Japan is one of the world’s leading hub for startup and the tech ecosystem. Thus investments have been flowing into the country seamlessly.
While looking at the statistics, Japan has been ahead of other economies in robot shipment. The country has shipped robots worth ¥3.4 billion in 2012, covering 50 percent of the global market share. Furthermore, about 300,000 robots were operating in the country, covering 23 percent of the global market share. Today, Japan is successful in the robotics segment because of its highly competitive research, development and applied technologies. Robotics development has the potential to transform Japan’s society by storm.
Japan is buoyant in Robotics
Japan has focused on the development of robotics since the 1970s. Earlier, industrial robotics were used across segments such as electronics and automobile. However, the usage of industrial robotics became pivotal in other industries to reduce the physical burden of human beings. Japan has been the world leader in robotics and the major intention is the role of robots in everyday life in the country. They are an integral part of many Japanese households. Robots assure a safer working environment while improving the productivity and quality of the products and services.
While speaking to International Finance, Ken Matsui, chief executive officer at Mira Robotics said, “Japan has established world-class manufacturing technologies in home appliances, automobiles, and semiconductors, and specialised production machines such as machine tools have been computerised into industrial robots. Industrial robots have become widespread and have contributed greatly to alleviating the labour shortage and improving the efficiency of production in Japan’s rapidly growing economy since the 1980s.”
The scenario outside Japan and various robotics investments
The demand for robotics in places such as China, the USA and Europe has been thriving because of the establishment of public and private sector robotics projects. While the Internet of Things (IoT) has played a major role in shaping up the robotics’ base in Europe and the USA. The global demand for robotics surged over the years and is still robust. The installed robotics units are projected to grow annually by over 15 percent between 2018 and 2020. The data are produced by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) in its report known as World Robotics 2017.
China is betting on industrial robotics to boost quality and productivity because of high labour cost and intense global competition with its counterparts. The country has become the top nation globally to acquire industrial robots. After Japan, South Korea is the next robotics hotbed since it had the world’s highest robot density since 2010. The country’s density is greater than the global average with 631 robots per 10,000 human workers. The country will be filled with over eight million people aged above 65 years. Therefore, robots are viewed as a catalyst to assist elders. The concept has received a positive response from the government including funding from companies such as Hyundai Heavy Industries, SK Telecom, and RoboStar.
Ken Matsui said, “Japan is entering a new phase in its super-aging demographic structure, ahead of the rest of the world, where the total population is decreasing, the number of elderly people is increasing, and the number of workers is decreasing. The world population is increasing, but as medical care develops and living standards rise, sooner or later all countries will eventually have a population structure similar to that of Japan. At that time, I believe the need for automation, efficiency, remoteness, and digitalization of city infrastructure services will become even stronger. I believe that service robots, which were born out of social issues in Japan, can contribute as exemplary solutions to similar issues that are expected to arise in countries around the world.”
The ubiquity of Japan’s robots
Japan’s tech companies, research institutions and other entities partner and work together to deploy the country’s cutting-edge robotics in a wide range of sectors. The county’s robots also have the capability to be used in space exploration. The Japanese government spurred the development and application of disaster-response robots after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. The department of precision engineering at the University of Tokyo School of Engineering are working on robots that can be operated in inclement weather and extreme environments. The sole purpose of the development is to train the robots to go into adverse environments which are difficult for humans to enter, capture images and collect information.
Medical robotics is another vital segment. The Japanese government is betting on the development and dissemination of medical equipment that utilizes robotics technology. The robots will cut the burden of both medical professionals and patients alike, for example, surgery assistant robots. While the department of mechanical engineering at the Tokyo school of engineering is testing robots for medicine and industrial processing. The team is currently conducting research and development on robot-assisted surgery.
These Japanese companies are leading from the frontline with innovations
A Tokyo-based firm called Connected Robotics has developed automated food robots. The first robot OctoChef makes a famous Japanese cuisine known as takoyaki, while the second robot Reita serves ice-cream. The firm has secured a $7.8 million Series A funding in 2019. It is expected to fulfil the firm’s ambitions towards the launch of products such as an automated dishwasher robot and an automated breakfast-cooking robot.
The world’s first robot capable of tidying up a room was launched by Preferred Networks. The startup is valued at $2 billion and is also the highest valued startup in Japan. The firm’s newer robotic endeavours are powered by ML and AI. The house cleaning robot has the capability to clean rooms with commands and instructions and can recognise 300 household items through machine vision. The robot intelligently selects and put away belongings.
SoftBank’s subsidiary SoftBank Robotics operates an independent startup that is famous for creating an emotion-reading robot, Pepper. The company has partnered with HSBC to rollout service robots for the bank’s branches across the US. There is another firm known as Ascent Robotics, which specialises in Ai -based software for robotics and self-driving vehicles. The firm’s research unit has developed ML algorithms and advanced neural models to equip intelligent vehicles. Furthermore, the firm has raised funds worth $16 million in 2018. It has also partnered with companies in the automotive segment to develop the technology.
PARO Therapeutic is a firm that has launched a medical robot specifically designed to stimulate patients suffering from ailments such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other cognitive disorders. The robot responds to the owner’s voice and interactions. Data has revealed that this type of robots are effective towards both loneliness and dementia therapy. According to Citi, Japan’s Fanuc and Europe’s ABB control nearly three-quarters of China’s industrial robot market.
Mira Robotics is considered one of the best robot makers in Japan. The company’s ugo robot is a top-notch product. Ugo, which is developed to cater to the country’s shrinking workforce, is equipped with a pair of height-adjustable industrial arms mounted on wheels. The $1,000 robot can be used to safeguard office buildings, carry out inspections and clean toilets and other areas inside an office. Ugo is capable of eliminating viruses on elevator buttons and door handles through ultraviolet light. Apart from that, it can record the temperature of the premises. It will be interesting to see how the robot is effectively utilised.
Mr Ken Matsui said, “The robot we are developing Ugo is not an industrial robot that works in a factory, but a service robot that works in a familiar living environment. Japan is said to be the first country in the world to face a super-aging society, and it is estimated that the working population in Japan will decrease by more than 14 million in the next 20 years. The city’s living infrastructure services include facilities, transportation period, communication, logistics, retail, medical care, security, cleaning, inspection, guidance, education, etc. There is a serious shortage of essential workers who support these services. Ugo is currently being developed as a building maintenance service robot, and is working to transform service tasks such as security, cleaning, and inspection into sustainable living infrastructures that can be shared between people and robots.”
How Japan weathered the Covid-19 pandemic with robots?
Japan has deployed sterilising robots for disinfecting airplanes and hospitals, while delivery robots have carried out contactless deliveries seamlessly and avatar robots are standing in for university students at graduation. The sterilising robots use ultraviolet light.
Ory Laboratories, Tokyo-based robotics has launched a desktop communications robot called OriHime Biz. The robot is used by children with physical impairments to virtually attend classes. Furthermore, a teacher suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) have used the robot to attend his student’s graduation ceremony. The company has also developed avatar robots for people working home during the lockdown due to the pandemic. However, the robots can also be utilized by people suffering from chronic health conditions.
Government investments for robotics development
The Chinese government invested $577 million in manufacturing intelligent robots in 2019. According to IFR Data, in 2018, the robotic density in China’s manufacturing segment recorded 140 units per 10,000 workers. In 2020, the government floated new developments for the robotics segment. The government unveiled plans to establish a handful of global robot manufacturers, followed by the establishment of new industrial clusters, boost China’s robot density and secure 45 percent of the domestic market share for the country’s high-end robots.
The Japanese government has ramped up its robot-related budget for 2019 to $351 million, with a mission to make the country the number one robotic innovation hub. The county delivered 52 percent of the global robot supply in 2018 and is the world´s number one industrial robot maker. The reports are produced by IFR.
In South Korea, the government is seeking to enhance the robotic segment through the Intelligent Robot Development and Supply Promotion Act of Korea. Furthermore, the government invested funds worth ₩151 billion in 2020 for robotics development. The government’s 2019 basic plan for intelligent robotics encourages systematic selection and concentration of promising public and private sectors. The focus area includes key robot software, manufacturing businesses, next-gen key components and segments such as logistics and healthcare where robotics are vital for operations. According to IFR, South Korea has doubled its number of industrial robots in operation and has ranked third behind Joan and China in 2018.
Europe’s largest-ever funding programme for research and innovation Horizon 2020 has funded robotics projects. Horizon 2020 covers various segments ranging from agri-food, manufacturing, commercial, transportation and healthcare use to consumer robotics. The European Commission provides a fund worth $780 million through the programme for robotics research and innovation for a period of seven years. The work programme 2018-2020 covers topics such as industry digitalisation through robotics, robotics applications in key areas, including artificial intelligence and cognition and many others with a budget of $173 million.
Germany is backing the usage of new cutting-edge technologies within administration and industry as part of its high-tech plan. The country is the fifth largest robot market in the world and number one in Europe is looking to boost robotics development through the PAiCE programme with a funding budget of $55 million. The robotics-oriented projects are seeking to develop platforms for service robotics solutions across relevant application segments including the manufacturing field, logistics and service. Germany sold almost 27,000 units of robots in 2018, creating a new record.
The US government floated the National Robotics Initiative (NRI) for fundamental robotics research and development. The budget for NRI in 2019 was $35 million. The department of defence and the Mars exploration programme provides funding for additional robotics application in the field of defence and space. The county ranks third in terms of robotics installation annually.
What does the future hold?
Japan’s robotics segment has a bright future as the Japanese government and businesses are betting on automation to assist the economy, contributing to a national enthusiasm for robots. Furthermore, Japan is a great example to many economies in terms of the successful implementation of technology. The Japanese robotic segment is poised to remain the best in the world in terms of innovation and sustainability. The majority of the Japanese population have ample knowledge about robotics and therefore there should not be a problem for the future generation to adapt to the robotic environment.
Japan’s aging population is a major concern for the government. More than a quarter of the population are 65 years or older, and the number is expected to surge by 40 percent in 2050. Therefore, robots are expected to play a pivotal role in assisting the workforce. The government is experimenting with robots in the eldercare segment for both patients and workers. The robotic can be found in the country like hotels and cafes; which is an inspiration to the rest of the world. Global economies, other than Japan must embrace robotics. However, it depends upon the approach of individual nations towards robotics. There pros and cons to robots. However, the effective deployment of robots will assist human beings and make life easier.
Ken Matsui said that “With Covid-19, the introduction of robots in Japan has become even more aggressive, and I feel that we are several years ahead of schedule. I believe that in the next three years, various service robots will spread throughout the city, and in five years, they will become the core technology that will make smart cities a reality in cities all over Japan.”