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December 07, 2015      

TOKYO — Among the eerily lifelike androids, flashy factory automation machines, and various service droids on display at the 2015 International Robot Exhibition here this month, there was a decidedly low-key demonstration of robots at a Hitachi Ltd. booth.

What was striking about the iREX demo was that there was no safety barrier around the Universal Robots (UR) arms as they pretended to test Hitachi rice cookers along a mock production line.

The arms from Odense, Denmark-based Universal Robots AS, which has been operating in Asia for only four years, are designed to work alongside people and assist in repetitive tasks.

It’s somewhat ironic that a foreign manufacturer’s robots are being used in Japan, which has long been a dominant powerhouse in industrial automation. However, it was clear at the biannual iREX expo that larger players both inside and outside Japan are getting into collaborative robots.

Strong and sensitive

Not far from where Boston-based Rethink Robotics Inc.‘s Baxter and Sawyer cobots were being shown off, Japanese automation heavyweight Fanuc Corp. was putting on its own co-robot demos.

Unlike Fanuc‘s trademark yellow industrial robots — as well as its yellow-suited staff — the co-robots were decked out in soft green foam and had signs advertising the lack of safety barriers.

Fanuc's CR-35iA collaborative robot

Fanuc’s CR-35iA cobot can be hand-guided and lift payloads weighing up to 77 lb.

When struck firmly, either by a stray human body part or an obstacle, they automatically stopped.

One Fanuc co-robot, the CR-35iA, is a multi-jointed arm that can help mechanics move wheels and tires around. Operators can move the arm by gripping its handles, essentially guiding it by hand.

Fanuc said the CR-35iA is the world’s first collaborative robot that can handle heavy payloads of up to 35kg (77 lb.).

Another demonstration involved the machine automatically feeding auto parts selected by a 3D sensor to a unit for machining, then retrieving them and placing them in a bin.

Other possible applications for the CR-35iA are tire and bumper assembly and moving around cardboard boxes. The company has also developed smaller versions with payloads of 4kg (8.8 lb.) and 7kg (15.4 lb.).

Japan’s robot makers get into the game

Other Japanese industrial robot makers are also getting into the collaborative game. Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. showed off its duAro SCARA co-robot, which can carry up to 2kg (4.4 lb.) in both of its four-axis arms. The machine has a direct teaching function, automatic slow-mode when people approach, and a wheeled base for quick relocation.

“These are designed to be easy to use, and they can automatically select different hands for different tasks,” Tomonori Sanada, a manager at Kawasaki, said while pointing out how the duAro was changing its end effectors to type on a laptop or tap a touchscreen.

Meanwhile, Yaskawa Electric Corp. exhibited its new Motoman HC-10, a six-axis collaborative robot arm covered with a soft, sensitive skin. A Yaskawa staffer used Kawasaki’s K-Roset simulation software to show off the new Motoman, which was set up on a mobile cart.

The spokesman said that changes in Japanese regulations have paved the way for greater adoption of co-robots. The new Motoman could be used for small-parts assembly, he added, but Yaskawa is still considering the best applications in conjunction with clients.

“Major Japanese manufacturers in the car industry have great interest in collaborative robots because they can automate the final assembly, the part that’s most labor-intensive,” said Lars Andersson, a Yokohama-based UR distributor. He was at iREX showing a BMW co-robot video in which UR bots are helping install car-door components.

“But collaborative robots are not replacing people — they become like your buddy,” Andersson said.

European robots represented

Aside from UR, European co-robot makers represented at iREX included Germany’s KUKA and Switzerland’s F&P Personal Robotics.

In addition, ABB Ltd. showed iREX visitors its dual-arm YuMi robot, introduced last April as one of the most anthropomorphic of recently developed co-robots. The YuMi was set up on a table opposite an ABB staffer dressed in a lab coat, and it snapped small plastic parts together before handing them to him.

The scene was an idealized vision of people and robots working together harmoniously. It drew crowds of Japanese onlookers on the same day that Nomura Research Institute announced the results of a study in which it found that up to 49 percent of jobs in Japan‘s rapidly aging society could be taken up by robots or computers within 10 to 20 years.

Industry observers have said that co-robots are a natural solution for that kind of demographic challenge.

“Humans and machines working together is much more effective because each can do what they are best at,” said Gill Pratt, the former DARPA Robotics Challenge program manager who’s now leading Toyota Motor Corp.’s new $1 billion robotics and artificial intelligence research center in the U.S. Toyota is also working on “partner robots.”

“Machines are good at repetitive, boring tasks, and people are good at problem-solving,” Pratt said. “Putting them together without a fence in between can be very effective.”