December 01, 2017      

Humanoids mixed with industrial robots as Japan kicked off its biennial International Robot Exhibition (iREX) 2017 in Tokyo on Wednesday, featuring cutting-edge smart machines for the workplace and beyond amid Japan’s aging population and shrinking labor pool.

Like many trade shows, iREX can be seen as a barometer of economic health. The 2017 edition is the biggest iREX ever, with an estimated 2,775 booths sponsored by 612 companies and organizations from Japan and 14 other countries. About one-fifth of the show is devoted to service robots, roughly the same as in 2015. The 2017 edition is being held under the theme of “The Robot Revolution Has Begun: Toward Heartwarming Society.”

“Under the government’s new robot strategy, robot utilization is moving ahead toward the target year of 2020 in the priority areas of craftsmanship, service, nursing and medicine, infrastructure and disaster management, agriculture, forestry and fisheries and the food industry,” Yoshiharu Inaba, chairman and CEO of Fanuc and chairman of the Japan Robot Association, wrote in The Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun newspaper, one of iREX’s sponsors.

Kawada Nextage iRex

Kawada Nextage robot with Schunk hands at iREX.

Vanishing workforce

The show began with Swiss industrial robot group ABB unveiling a new member of its YuMi line of collaborative robots. Designed to work alongside humans in assembly operations, the latest YuMi features a single arm, lead-through programming and a 500-gram payload. Rolling out in 2018, the new robot can work on applications ranging from automotive electronics, to toys and food and beverage packaging.

“It has seven axes and is our smallest, most flexible and agile collaborative robot yet,” says Andie Zhang, a product manager at ABB. “With its external controller, we were able to make its footprint very small, and the manipulator weighs less than 10 kg, so even I could carry it around.”

Japanese companies showed off a mix of new and previously seen industrial robots as well as partner robots and humanoids. Beset by demographic decline, the country is especially keen to develop robots to meet a wide range of industrial needs. According to Tokyo-based industrial robot controller maker Mujin, Japan’s workforce is shrinking by 2,125 people every day.

Yamaha Motor envisions a future with more unmanned factories that will require intelligent machines to watch over them. Alongside its LCM-X linear motor conveyor module, which can shift assembly items around faster than a conveyor belt, it showed off two large robots that can check up on problems in factories. The size of a small washing machine, each AFV robot is equipped with a high-resolution camera and LIDAR modules. They can send video back to a manned control center for analysis.

Yamaha Motor’s AFV robots at iREX.

“We are aiming for total automation, and this is one part of that,” says Hiroki Ikuma of Yamaha’s Sales & Marketing Division. “These robots can investigate when there may be trouble on the assembly line, so there’s no need to dispatch staff.”

Flexible robo-workers at iRex

One of the stars of iREX 2017, however, is Toyota’s recently announced Toyota- Humanoid Robot 3 (T-HR3). It’s the latest generation partner robot in a line going back to the trumpeter robots of 2005 and the violin players of 2010. The T-HR3 is a 1.54-meter-tall, 75-kg machine has 32 joints and twin cameras in its head. It’s controlled through a master-slave system, with the controller looking at a head-mounted display and manipulating robotic arms and fingers in the Master Maneuvering System chair.

Toyota envisions the robot being operated remotely to do household chores, nursing care as well as construction work and jobs in disaster zones and outer space.

In a demo, the T-HR3 moved with remarkable dexterity, both when it was being directly controlled and when it was executing a preprogrammed sequence of movements. In the former, it was used to pick up and stack large plastic blocks and then take objects out of a basket. When moving on its own, the T-HR3 went through a series of Tai chi-style movements and poses, standing on one foot, exhibiting a human-like sense of balance, and showing off the suppleness of its Torque Servo Technology, a name Toyota uses to describe a series of sensors, motors and gears that power the T-HR3.

“The robot has flexible control so it can properly react to any object it comes in contact with,” says Tomohisa Moridaira of Toyota’s Partner Robot Division, “as well as whole-body coordination and balance control, and real-remote maneuvering so that controllers can operate it seamlessly. We created this humanoid robot to showcase our servo-modules for flexible joint control.”

Samurai robot by Murata Seiko at iREX 2017.

Samurai robot by Murata Seiko at iREX 2017.