New Robot Applications Get Spotlight at iRex 2017

International investor Georg Stieler at iRex 2017 in Japan.

December 11, 2017      

TOKYO — At the beginning of this month, the International Robot Exhibition, or iRex, took place here. Together with the System Control Fair running at the same time, the bi-annual event is the largest robotics and automation show in Japan. It did not disappoint in terms of potential robot applications.

The mood was excellent among attendees and exhibitors. According to the Japan Robotics Association (JARA), orders in 2017 were 20% higher than last year. Sales numbers have increased for 17 straight quarters and are at the highest quarterly numbers ever.

Robots headed for China hold 46% of the total value. With that favorable base, JARA said it expects yearly production will exceed the previous record of JPY 800 billion ($7.04 billion U.S.).

Whether it’s because Japanese firms like to play more with technology or because they have more relatively small-scale robot applications ready to show — I have never seen so many application cases on site. Exhibitors at Automatica in Munich, Automate in Chicago, and the Chinese fairs could learn a thing or two from here.

Industrial robots get faster, smarter, and easier to set up

As one could expect, Japanese manufacturers FANUC, Yaskawa, Kawasaki, and Denso dominated the exhibition. But ABB and KUKA also had a strong presence.

Easier machine learning will enable new robot applications.

A worker shows the robot what to do, the robot will replicate job until all buckets have been emptied — a blessing for the worker’s back.

Here are some major trends I observed at iRex 2017:

Easy setup. All the major players showed off easy ways to teach robots how to move without programming skills. The simplest and most popular version is “lead-through programming” — showing a movement by hand, and the robot will remember it.

Even though this concept has been around for over 30 years, it is becoming popular now because customers are looking for robot applications in production processes with smaller volumes, which require more flexibility.

Most use cases for this feature can be found in collaborative robots. For instance, ABB introduced a single arm version of its YuMi at iRex. We also saw it in larger robots applications.

There are still mixed opinions on how popular these solutions will really become in the long run. A big disadvantage of cobots in particular is the limited speed at which they operate.

Faster robot models presented by Kawasaki and Denso address this problem. The majority of use cases were in manufacturing, as well as with larger robots for palletizing.

Machine vision with deep learning. Image recognition has made huge improvements in the past three years. Almost every vendor showed robot applications combining machine vision with deep learning for picking tasks or surface inspection.

Teleoperations is expanding the potential for robot applications.

An iRex attendee controls a Kawaski painting robot.

Teleops. Kawasaki and Denso’s exhibits were examples of robots operated in real time by humans, some combined with augmented reality (AR). The opportunities for attendees to try them out drew a lot of attention.

Smart transports rather than simple AGVs. Denso, Omron, and Yaskawa showed smart transport robots to supply assembly stations. Different than traditional automated guided vehicles (AGVs), these robots are able to find their way again if they meet an obstacle such as a worker walking around in the factory.

Interconnectivity. Forward-thinking robot manufacturers consider data and the ability to generate value for their customers as major future assets. This is the context in which one has to consider ABB and Kawasaki’s major announcement of their cooperation.

Japanese companies have been relatively late to embrace concepts of intelligent, interconnected production processes. For the past two years, however, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has actively encouraged domestic companies to develop concepts comparable to what is called Industry 4.0 in Germany. (The Japanese equivalent has the official name “Society 5.0.”)

All of the major Japanese automation suppliers introduced platforms for data collection and analysis this year. Robot applications include predictive maintenance and analytics. The latter enables users to gain an even deeper understanding of their production processes for incremental improvement. This is an area where Japanese companies have been traditionally strong.

Service robots: Humanoid ambitions, student initiatives

Japan is the leading country for service robots. Its people are used to a high degree of automation in their everyday lives. For example, Japan has 4.9 million drink vending machines — this corresponds to 1 for every 26 people.

Toyota's latest humanoid service robot.

Toyota’s new service robot is a tele-operated humanoid.

Both leading enterprises and research institutions are working hard to meet the challenges of an aging society with robot applications. I saw some interesting developments in this field at iRex.

The newly unveiled Toyota-Humanoid Robot 3 (T-HR3) was one of the most popular exhibits. It uses tele-operations/remote control, for now. Particularly impressive is its Torque Servo Technology, which allows for flexible control.

The service robot can react properly to any object it comes in touch with. Unlike other concepts I saw, it also has legs and an impressive sense for balance and gravity (at least on stage).

Kawada Robotics had Nextage, a robot whose upper body looked similar but was more autonomous.

The company demonstrated probably the most ambitious use cases among the growing number of suppliers of robots with two arms.

A heartwarming robot application was when students from Kyushu Institute for Technology presented a Baxter robot to help elderly people getting dressed.

Japan’s robot applications rise to meet the future

In Japan, more than 2,000 people retiring from the workforce every single day. The country has no other choice than to exploit the opportunities of robotics and the Internet of Things.

In addition, the country has strong base of industrial automation, robotics and product design, and the resolve to leverage these strengths.

As a German investor currently residing in China, this show provided some valuable insights. Japan can serve as an inspiration, not only for countries with aging populations, but also for the next industrial and service revolutions. I will certainly pay closer attention to Japanese robotics developments in the future!