September 02, 2015      

Large companies that have long relied on industrial automation for manufacturing operations are now buying robotics businesses to bring the capabilities in-house and remain globally competitive. Japanese enterprises are joining Chinese companies in turning to robotics to compensate for slow sales, rising labor costs, and the challenges of offshoring.

The latest example, Canon Inc., has suffered from falling sales as a result of the economic slowdown and declining demand for digital cameras because of smartphones. The Tokyo-based company plans to spend 400 billion yen ($3.2 billion) on acquisitions in an attempt to diversify beyond cameras and office equipment.

Canon CEO Fujio Mitarai told The Nikkei that the company hopes to generate sales of 1 trillion yen ($8.3 billion) from new fields such as robotics and life sciences by 2020. Canon already supports the robotics industry with cameras and machine-vision systems. Its U.S. division plans to release three 3D models in October.

For the past three years, Canon has been increasing automated production of cameras, and it plans to increase the ratio of production in Japan from 40 percent to 60 percent in three years. However, it claimed that industrial automation won’t result in reductions in quality or its workforce.

“After polishing the production technology in the domestic market, we will sell it to others,” Mitarai said. Other potential products include a genetic analyzer for the U.S. market.

Going for the gold in robotics

The Japanese government is encouraging robotics because of an increasing labor shortage. It and companies in Japan plan to showcase robotics applications at the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. They include DeNA Ltd.’s self-driving taxicabs, multilingual guides from NTT Corp., and Panasonic Corp., Cyberdyne Inc.’s exoskeletons for moving items at the airport, autonomous cleaning robots, and customer-service robots such as SoftBank’s Pepper.

Japanese companies will also be serving the Olympics’ security needs. Canon recently bought Sweden-based Axis AB, which makes video surveillance systems. “The 2020 games will be a very good business opportunity,” said a spokesman for Canon Marketing Japan Inc.

Fanuc, Preferred Networks invest in IoT

Another Japanese company, Fanuc Corp., is investing 900 million yen ($7.3 million) in Preferred Networks Inc. The industrial automation and machine learning companies are already working together on technology to analyze the data generated by robots in real time, as the Internet of Things and big data become more important to manufacturing.

Fanuc and Preferred Networks also plan to develop artificial intelligence so that robots that can learn complex and non-repetitive behaviors, cooperate among themselves, and predict and repair malfunctions.

In addition, Fanuc recently released a new collaborative robot, the CR-35iA. Fanuc’s AI investment is similar to Samsung Electronics Co. and Wipro Ltd.’s support of Vicarious FPC Inc., as well as Samsung’s new robotics lab. It’s also part of a trend in which companies such as Yaskawa Electric Corp. and ABB Ltd. are buying up smaller firms for their technology.