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Mobile Cobots Reach for the Stars in Japan

FANUC combined a cobot arm and an AGV at the World Robot Summit. Credit: Tim Hornyak

November 21, 2018      

TOKYO — During Japan’s Robot Week last month, a new robot exhibition here drew attention to mobile collaborative platforms from major Japanese manufacturers. These mobile cobots each consisted of a wheeled base topped with an industrial robot arm. Such machines promise to function alongside people and improve efficiency in logistics and manufacturing.

The five-day World Robot Summit (WRS) is a trade show and international competition that alternates years with the International Robot Exhibition, (iRex) held by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX).

Sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), the summit showcased industrial, service, and disaster robots.

WRS also included a Junior Category in which students compete in programming SoftBank Robotics’ Pepper and other machines.

Omron moves toward mobile cobots

Kyoto-based Omron, which introduced its i4 line of SCARA robots earlier this year, has been pushing into mobile cobots with its autonomous, self-mapping, and fleet-capable LD series.

Mobile robots at WRS included one from Omron and Techman Robot.

Omron’s mobile cobot is the result of an alliance with Techman Robot. Credit: Tim Hornyak

At WRS, the company showed off what it described as an autonomous collaborative robot. The result of a strategic alliance between Omron and Taiwan’s Techman Robot, the mobile cobot consisted of a low-to-the-ground LD mobile base and a TM series arm from Techman.

During the show, the mobile cobot quietly moved about a demonstration space, picking up items from shelves and placing them in its basket while a human supervisor worked alongside.

The mobile cobot does not require teaching and can choose which objects to pick. It uses 3D vision to avoid people and obstacles while navigating. It’s still a concept with no launch plans.

“If you need to move objects, say, a distance of 5 meters, it’s a simple task that a robot could perform instead of deploying human resources for it,” saod Naoya Ochi, a manager at Omron’s Industrial Automation Co. “We’re showing this to clients as a productivity booster.”

Yaskawa joins mobile cobots race.

Yaskawa’s cobot on a cart is designed to work on retail and domestic current. Credit: Tim Hornyak

Yaskawa puts an arm on a cart

Motoman series maker Yaskawa Electric was also showing off a mobile cobot, though it’s only mobile in the sense that it has wheels and can be pushed around.

Launched commercially earlier this year, the Motoman-HC10DT Hand-carry Type is designed for logistics, palletizing, and assembly.

It incorporates Yaskawa’s HC10DT cobot arm, which went on sale in 2017. The mobile cobots have six degrees of freedom and a payload capacity of 10 kg.

Touchscreen for Yaskawa's mobile cobots

Yaskawa’s mobile cobot can be controlled via a touchscreen on the unit. Credit: Tim Hornyak

Operation can be controlled via a large touchscreen panel and the bot uses 100 volts, the voltage for retail and domestic electricity in Japan.

“This is great for applications such as warehouses that don’t have 200-volt power supply,” said Shohei Fukada, a Yaskawa spokesperson. “Customers are pleased because it can be programmed in a day or two, compared to two weeks with previous robots.”

FANUC combines AGV with cobot

Another of Japan’s robot manufacturing giants, FANUC, also exhibited a mobile cobot concept. It combined an automatic guided vehicle (AGV) developed with outside partners and a CR-14iA/L arm (see photo above).

The machine rolled around autonomously in a demo area between a mock part-kitting process area and an assembly area. Staffers in FANUC’s trademark yellow uniforms worked beside them.

The cobot arm, which had a payload of 14 kg, grabbed pieces and placed them in bins atop the AGV, then unloaded them at the other station before repeating the task. The mobile cobot also recharged itself by connecting into each station.

“It can operate 24 hours a day by charging itself,” said Toshiro Watanabe, a senior development engineer in FANUC’s Robot Mechanical Development Laboratory. “The robot can move around extensively in an area where people are working, without the need for safety barriers.”

Robot demand in Japan still rising

Japanese robot makers are enjoying steady demand. Shipments for 2017 were up nearly 27% from the year before, with machining, painting, material handling, and palletizing applications marking the biggest gains, according to data from the Japan Robot Association.

“There is a coming explosion in the combinations of robot and artificial intelligence technologies,” Tomomasa Sato, a University of Tokyo professor emeritus and chairperson of the WRS executive committee, wrote in an introduction to the WRS.

“This is due to the available lineup of top-grade element technologies such as vision (recognition) and teaching (simulation teaching),” he said. “The combinations of these technologies have produced a new stage for development of robots in a wide range of fields.”