uly 14, 2009
Robotics Industry Declining in Japan?
In Japan – a nation many of us associate with gadgets and consumer electronics – the robotics industry appears
to be declining.
The nation’s legions of robots, the world’s largest fleet of mechanized workers, are being idled as the country
suffers its deepest recession in more than a generation as consumers worldwide cut spending on cars and
gadgets, according to The New York Times.
“We’ve taken a huge hammering,” Koji Toshima, president of Yaskawa, Japan’s largest maker of industrial robots,
told to the Times. Profit at the company plunged by two-thirds, to 6.9 billion yen, about $72 million, in the year
ended March 20, and it predicts a loss this year. The Japan Robot Association noted that shipments ofindustrial
robots fell 59 percent in the first quarter of 2009.
However, other sectors of the industry appear poised for growth. Last week, a major Japanese mobile service
robot developer showed interest in licensingGeckoSystems’ Mobile Robot Solutions for Safety, Security and
Service, meaning the Japanese robot developer will seek to improve its manufacturing and distribution services
in the island nation.
Over the last eight to 10 years, the Japanese government has spent $100 million in grants to Sanyo, Toshiba,
Fujitsu, NEC (News - Alert) to develop personal robots for the nation’s eldercare crisis. GeckoSystems’ robots
are specifically designed for the elderly population.
Sources within the Japanese government project their domestic market to range from $26 billion in 2010 and to
nearly $70 billion by 2025 for personal robots.
In 2005, more than 370,000 robots worked at factories across Japan – The New York Times said – about 40
percent of the global total, representing 32 robots for every 1,000 manufacturing employees, according to a
report by Macquarie Bank. Prior to the recession, a 2007 government plan for technology policy called for one
million industrial robots to be installed by 2025, which would appear to be a long-shot at this point.
New Possibilities for Japan’s Robot Industry
The Japanese robot industry is projected to exceed six trillion yen in sales in 2025. Amidst
demand for cutting-edge industrial robots, Japanese producers are working to strengthen their
competitiveness in service robots, where they have made major advances in practical applications.
The Japanese robot industry will continue to advance, and increasingly collaborate with cutting-
component manufacturers, while also engaging in more international alliances.
Six Trillion Yen Market by 2025
The Japanese robot industry began in the late 1960s and
had developed numerous practical applications by the
1970s. The year 1980 is considered the commercial start of
high-tech robots. The market grew thereafter, although the
collapse of Japan’s asset-inflated economic bubble and the
shift of production (primarily consumer electronics)
overseas slowed growth in domestic demand in the 1990s.
Nevertheless, the Japanese economy gradually recovered
and began to grow again from 2003, and robot shipments
(including exports) climbed to 576.7 billion yen in 2004.
By the end of 2004, 356,500 industrial robots were
operating in Japan, the largest number in the world. The
United States was a distant second with 122,000,
underscoring the conspicuous inroads made by Japanese
industrial robots. Between 40 and 50 percent of shipment
value is exported, making Japan the world leader in exports
As detailed in N Report – Toward a New Industrial
Structure, issued by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and
Industry in May 2004, the Japanese government has
targeted robots as a key industry for promotion. The ministry’s Next-Generation Robot Vision
compiled a report in April 2004 projecting strong growth from about 1.8 trillion yen in 2010 to 6.2
trillion yen in 2025.
Killer Applications Hold the Key
The robot industry also includes non-industrial service robots, a field where Japan lags behind
Europe and North America. According to Comparisons in International Competitive Strength by
Robot Application Field, a collection of opinions from robot experts in industry, government and
academia compiled by the Japan Robot Association (JRA), Japan is competitive in three major
industrial robots, construction/civil engineering robots and entertainment robots. By comparison,
Western robots are strong in the fields of aerospace, nuclear power, entertainment, marine
applications, exploration, healthcare, agriculture and livestock.
JRA Administration Department General Manager Shigeaki Yanai explains the reasons for this
situation: “For medical treatment, nuclear power and other niche markets, replacements are not
needed every year. These products are highly specialized, order-made models for small markets.
Japan is not strong in this area. We have the right technology, but we lag behind the competition
software and networking know-how.”
Service robots clearly differ from their industrial-use counterparts in many ways. They are
highly mobile, seldom used for repetitive work and are becoming increasingly common in
life. Safety is a crucial issue for robots that interact with people. For example, the motions
to go up and down stairs are simple enough for people, but pose an extremely difficult challenge
for Business Topics (C) JETRO Japan Economic Monthly, February
robots. Similarly, while robots are adept at accurate repetition, they have only limited powers of
judgment when different movements must be performed randomly.
On this point, Dai Akimoto, the director of Robot Business Promotion for Strategic Business
Development in SGI Japan, Ltd., a company developing unique robot projects, believes that
strengthened applications are the key to success. “In Japan, there is a focus on hardware design,
a tendency for companies to create robots in various configurations. However, if the application
to achieve the desired degree of accuracy, then you just have a robot built for a specific
rather than a specific application. For the next generation of robots, we need to think more in
of specific applications.”
As a case in point, Japan is the world leader in developing humanoid robots, such as Honda
Company’s “Asimo.” Nevertheless, these charismatic robots remain ambiguous at best in terms of
what they actually do. Failing to clarify this part of the equation will make it hard to inspire
JRA’s Yanai also echoes the view that to expand the market for service robots, killer applications
needed to stimulate demand.
Surgical Robots Developed with U.S. Partner
Some companies are aggressively commercializing robots. One example is optical equipment
manufacturer Olympus Corporation. Together with Intuitive Surgical, Inc. (IS) of the U.S., Olympus
developed the Da Vinci ultrasonic coagulation surgical scissors, the world’s first ultrasonic device
for endoscopic surgery. In 2003, Olympus developed a 3D/2D imager for an IS-produced robotic
endoscopic surgery system. The imager enables surgeons to view the internal body in 3D and
the endoscope with depth perception, which makes it easier to perform suturing or other delicate
maneuvers. The imager can also be switched easily to a 2D wide-angle view to show the
relationship between the forceps and the target.
“At Olympus, we developed a surgical robot about six years ago and demonstrated it at an
academic conference. The timing was a bit early, though, and that particular robot was never
commercialized. The project with IS went ahead after they asked us to put our technology to use,”
relates Shuichi Takayama, head of the Olympus R&D Planning Division.
Olympus also participates in the Medical Engineering Technology Industrial Strategy Consortium,
an alliance among industry, government and academia to make the Japanese medical device
more competitive internationally in terms of developing new equipment. Takayama heads a
committee devoted to one of the consortium’s core themes, which is developing minimally
medical devices that combine high-performance surgical robots with imaging technology.
Endoscopic surgery is much less invasive than conventional abdominal surgical operations.
Treatment and hospitalization periods are shorter, and costs are lower. Conversely, visibility during
endoscopic surgery is limited and surgical procedures are performed by remote control. This
tremendous powers of concentration from surgeons, and places great stress on them. But robotics
can lower the stress by automating the work and making movements more accurate. For example,
system can be set to move the forceps by only one centimeter when the physician moves the
arm 10 centimeters. More precision will help to lower the risk of injuring body tissue surrounding
the target, and thereby reduce the burden on surgeons.
Akira Suzuki, the general manager of the Research Department of Olympus Medical Systems
Corp., says, “In actual surgery, sometimes the surgeon will want to switch from a robotic device to
traditional abdominal surgery, but this can lead to problems. For example, the large size of many
robots available at present makes it difficult to quickly transition from the robotic device to the
surgeon’s hands, so this leaves a lot to be resolved. Nonetheless, the role robots can play in
operating room will become more important in the future.”
Another drawback of robots is their inability to convey tactile sensations when they touch an
affected area. Also, the Japanese government’s standards for medical devices are quite demanding,
requiring substantial time to obtain approval as medical devices. This is another issue to be
overcome in the commercialization of surgical robots.
Unique Mannequin Robots Business Topics (C) JETRO Japan
Economic Monthly, February 2006
SGI Japan is also working on developing new applications for robots, such as the mannequin-
robot known as Palette. Developed jointly with robot designer Tatsuya Matsui, director of Flower
Robotics, Palette uses motion-capture technology to memorize several dozen human poses, such
those used by fashion supermodels, and it also has sensors to detect and respond people.
Applications include fashion show windows and other displays requiring mannequins. Palette can
also be equipped to sense the number of people entering a store and their movements once
which can be useful for both marketing and security.
“We don’t claim that Palette is state-of-the-art technology. However, since we build products
based on market needs, we are confident in what we can do. We already have several proposals
investment, mass production, sales and other activities. Our products tend to receive higher
evaluations in Europe, where importance is placed on performance,” related SGI Japan Director
SGI Japan has also developed the “BlackShip” platform to support robot development, with
now getting off the ground. The platform consists of a four-wheeled chassis, battery, sample
software and other components. According to the company, corporate or university robot
will be able to concentrate on application development and other essential research themes
the need to spend time developing basic hardware or software. BlackShip is actually based on the
FUMA rescue robot jointly developed by SGI Japan and the University of Electro-Communications.
Vast Component Industry
There are areas of the service robot field in which Japan can hold its own against the West. The
Report – Toward a New Industrial Structure defines the robot field as a vertically linked industry
comprised of systems that integrate machinery, electronics, information communications, materials
and other technologies. In the process of integrating such technologies, Japan — with its highly
developed component industry — enjoys certain advantages in areas such as miniaturization,
reduction and production engineering. Japanese technology and expertise developed for industrial
robots should be applicable to service robots.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is promoting the 21
Century Robot Challenge
Program with the aim of developing robotics as a leading industry by supporting R&D for existing
robotic systems. Current activities include, for example, projects to develop a shared platform, and
practical applications for next-generation robots and both human-friendly and supportive robots.
Also promoting a wide range of robot-related projects are the Ministry of Internal Affairs and
Communications, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and the
Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. According to a JRA study, there are currently some
130 Japanese robot manufacturers with proven production expertise, underscoring the high level
interest in robotics in both the public and private sectors.
Clearly, there is ample potential for the Japanese robot industry to continue to grow and
But continued success will require stronger utilization of available advantages, and the aggressive
formation of international alliances to adapt foreign technology and products. Business Topics
(C) JETRO Japan Economic Monthly, February 2006
SGI Japan. Ltd.
OLYMPUS MEDICAL SYSTEMS CORP.
JAPAN ROBOT ASSOCIATION
Japan's robot makers are preparing for the factory robot's second coming,
reports Tony McNicol.
In Japan there are robots that dance, robots that ride bicycles and roller-skate, play trumpets.
There are robots that serve drinks, look after elderly relatives, even guard your house. But as the
roots of the word robot, from the Czech noun robota (work) hint, automata have a more prosaic
raison d'être; namely, hard physical labor. According to the Paris-based International Federation of
Robotics (IFR), there are 951,000 industrial robots at work over the globe. No less than 37% of
those beaver away in Japan, the world's leading robot manufacturer and user. The automobile and
electronics industries are already heavily roboticized. Now, as Japanese manufacturers produce
ever more dexterous, adaptable and intelligent robots, other industries are taking note. The world
robot market is predicted to grow to 5.4 trillion yen (47.8 billion dollars) by 2025.
Perhaps surprisingly for a quintessential symbol of Japanese technical prowess though, the
industrial robot was actually invented in the United States. The first robotics patent was applied for
in 1954 by an American engineer named George Devol. Two years later he founded Unimation
(Universal Automation) with entrepreneur Joseph F. Engelberger. They named their first
mechanical arm not a robot, but a "programmable transfer machine," a device to pick up and
move objects. In 1961 it began work stacking hot pieces of metal at a General Motors plant.
Although Unimation's machine quickly caught the imagination of the public, it was not until the
1980s before industry began to see the practical advantages of this sci-fi-esque technology. And
even then it was on the other side of the Pacific from the United States. American employers had
been wary of how factory workers might react on seeing their jobs usurped by machines. In Japan,
however, there was an economic boom and a worker shortage. Strong demand for robots started
in the automobile sector and then shifted to the electronics industry. A quarter of a century later,
Japan has a higher ratio of robots to workers than any other country in the world. There are 349
robots for every 10,000 workers, which compares to 186 robots in Germany and just 99 in the
United States. In the Japanese automobile industry, there is approximately one robot for every
Likewise, Japan is home to almost all of the world's main robots. Leader at present is Yaskawa
Electric, which specializes in robot arms for automobile factories. Other principle players include
Matsushita, a producer of packaging robots, Fanuc, and Kawasaki Heavy Industries. Japanese
companies also dominate the U.S. market, although Sweden-based ABB also has a strong
To date industrial robots have toiled at dangerous, arduous or unpleasant work like welding car
chassis, but Japan's robot makers hope to introduce robots to an ever-wider range of industries.
"In principle, we believe that robots could be applied to all industries," asserts Tomita Yasushi, a
manager in Kawasaki Heavy Industries' Robotics Division. According to the International
Federation of Robotics World Robotics 2007 report, issued this October, robot sales to the
fabricated metal products industry, the chemical industry and the food industry increased
substantially in 2006. They expect "vigorous demand" in industries other than automobile
It is not just the range of jobs for industrial robots that is expanding. Robot investment is
spreading through globalization and outsourcing of production to developing and newly developed
countries. The so-called BRICs nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are receiving particular
attention. Last autumn, Kawasaki Heavy Industries set up an industrial robot marketing subsidiary
in Tianjin, China. The company is also considering similar moves in Russia and India.
The IFR reports that China is now the third-largest market in Asia after Japan and Korea, with
5,800 newly installed robots in 2006. That is 29% more than in 2005 (mostly automobile, but also
rubber, plastics, electrical/electronics). In the same year, India had 850 industrial robots—twice as
many robots as twelve months before; modest but dynamic growth. Meanwhile, the Eastern
Europe and Turkey markets are predicted to expand as automobile manufacturers move
production further afield.
Another positive sign for Japan's robot industry is the development of so-called assistive robots.
So far, assembly line robots have paid their way by being accurate, reliable and indefatigable,
performing repetitive tasks speedily and well. Assistive robots, on the other hand, are expected to
be smart, small, and mobile. And unlike existing industrial robots which normally operate at a safe
distance from humans, assistive robots will share their workspace with their operators.
"Closer cooperation between humans and robots will be an important factor in future productivity
gains," argues the Stuttgart-based Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and
Automation in a 2006 report into assistive robots. "It is estimated that the share of robots with
assistive capabilities will reach up to twenty percent by the year 2020."
Hamada Shoichi, general manager in the Technical Department of the Japan Robot Association
agrees that assistive robots will be crucial to the future of the robotics industry. That is, as long as
certain problems can be overcome first. He explains that robots working alongside humans will
need to be easier to use, smarter, safer and cheaper than they are now.
"I think a time will come when, because of technical improvements to software, anyone can make
practical use of robots," says Hamada. "You can understand the situation when you look at the
spread of personal computers. At first they could only be used by a limited number of technical
specialists, but now the technology has developed and we are in an age when anyone can use
"For example, when the position of the work piece moves slightly we want to avoid the robot not
being able to pick up the piece or the production line halting," he continues. "For that reason
robots need the same decision-making ability as humans."
Likewise, robots need to be safe enough to work elbow-to-elbow with people. "There is a tendency
for [robot] safety regulations to get stricter not more lax," notes Ogino Yuko, a spokeswoman for
robot manufacturer Yaskawa Electric. "More sophisticated safety technology will be needed to clear
those hurdles," she says.
But arguably the highest hurdle is cost. The Japan Robot Association reports that industrial robot
unit prices have dropped approximately 75% between 1990 and 2003. But, at tens of thousands of
dollars each they are still too expensive for some jobs, and well out of the price range of many
medium-sized and small companies.
Despite these obstacles, some in the Japanese robot industry see assistive robots as a way to deal
with an imminent and potentially crippling worker shortage. The Japan Research Institute, a think-
tank, has predicted a shortfall of 340,000 factory workers by 2015 due to the aging population and
low birthrate. Skills gaps are already opening up in some industries as the baby-boomer
generation leaves the workplace.
Japan's major robot manufacturers will be looking to take advantage of that new demand, as well
as build on their current lead and advance into promising new markets such as China and India.
Japan's first robot boom was in the 1980s, a time of economic growth and worker shortages in the
automobile industry, two factors which again apply today. Perhaps industrial robots are due for
another heyday? If so, we can expect them to be smarter and more productive than their
predecessors, and do far more than just make cars.