Japanese companies see big things in small-scale industrial robots

Japan is known for bringing large-scale industrial robots to the factory floor. (Reuters)
Updated 20 April 2018
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Japanese companies see big things in small-scale industrial robots

  • The cobots segment is set to grow over the next decade to more than $10 billion, by some estimates — several dozen times its current size
  • Relatively inexpensive and easy to operate, cobots are now used by companies of all sizes for small-batch manufacturing and simple processes

TOKYO: A two-armed robot in a Japanese factory carefully stacks rice balls in a box, which a worker carries off for shipment to convenience stores. At another food-packaging plant, a robot shakes pepper and powdered cheese over pasta that a person has just arranged in a container.
In a country known for bringing large-scale industrial robots to the factory floor, such relatively dainty machines have until recently been dismissed as niche and low-margin.
But as workforces age in Japan and elsewhere, collaborative robots — or “cobots” — are seen as a key way to help keep all types of assembly lines moving without replacing humans.
Japan’s Fanuc and Yaskawa Electric, two of the world’s largest robot manufacturers, didn’t see the shift coming. Now they are trying to catch up.
“We didn’t expect large manufacturers would want to use such robots, because those robots can lift only a light weight and have limited capabilities,” said Kazuo Hariki, an executive director at Fanuc.
Although still a small portion of a $40 billion industrial robot market, the cobots segment is set to grow over the next decade to more than $10 billion, by some estimates — several dozen times its current size.
The concept of a robot co-worker is relatively new. Danish company Universal Robots, founded in 2005, introduced cobots for industrial applications in late 2008, closely working with major German automakers such as Volkswagen.
At first, “a lot of people misunderstood what the cobot is,” said Universal Robots’ chief executive, Juergen von Hollen. But the machines quickly became popular in Europe because of their safety, simplicity and ability to directly assist human workers, he said.
Supported by Berlin’s “Industrie 4.0” strategy to promote smart factories, the likes of Kuka and Robert Bosch followed Universal Robots into the market in the early 2010s.
Relatively inexpensive and easy to operate, cobots are now used by companies of all sizes for small-batch manufacturing and simple processes.
In Japan, food maker Nippon Flour Mills uses a cobot made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries for seasoning packaged food sold at convenience stores.
“Labour costs are rising, with more intense competition to hire workers,” said Atsushi Honda, technology team manager at Nippon Flour’s plant engineering group.
Automating some tasks with machines that didn’t need to be separated from human employees helped the company solve that labor issue, he said.
Industry analysts say Japanese robot makers, in addition to underestimating the appeal of cobots, were held back in their home market by government safety regulations.
Heavy industrial robots had to be fenced off from human contact. Robots that worked in closer proximity to people were limited in how powerful they could be.
The restrictions on cobots were relaxed in late 2013 to match international standards. Japanese robotmakers remained cautious at first, but are now trying to dash into the market.
Fanuc in February bought Life Robotics Inc, whose clients include Toyota Motor Corp. and Omron Corp, for an undisclosed amount. It was the first acquisition in 15 years for Fanuc, known among investors for its huge cash pile. Rival Yaskawa Electric released its first cobot last year.
Both, however, lag far behind Universal Robots, which still has roughly 60 percent of the global market and is now owned by Teradyne, according to analysis firm BIS Research. Fanuc has 6 to 10 percent market share, and Yaskawa’s share is even smaller.
Yaskawa’s head of robotics, Masahiro Ogawa, said he was confident the company could grow as customers looked for more sophisticated models.
“As users get used to handling cobots, they will have more advanced and diverse demands. We have the capacity to better meet such demands,” Ogawa said.
Mitsubishi Electric Corp. plans to launch a cobot early next year aimed at users such as electronics makers and logistics companies, said Katsutoshi Urabe, senior manager in charge of the company’s robot sales.
Kawasaki Heavy, another engineering giant that entered the market in 2015, tied up with Swiss rival ABB last year. The two companies plan to standardize cobot programming, said Tomonori Sanada, who is in charge of Kawasaki’s robot marketing and sales planning.
But Universal Robots’ von Hollen was unfazed by the interest of such heavyweights, saying the market would grow to accommodate new competitors.
His company, which reported a 72 percent jump in revenue to $170 million last year, expects to grow at least 50 percent in 2018.
“Probably only 10 percent of our target market really knows about collaborative robots,” he said. “So there is 90 percent potential that is gone untapped.”


Sony buys EMI Music Publishing in $1.9 billion deal

Updated 1 min 15 sec ago
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Sony buys EMI Music Publishing in $1.9 billion deal

  • The deal adds a catalogue of more than two million songs — including some of the greatest hits from the first half of the 20th century — to Sony’s already huge repertoire
  • Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” continues to be a top-10 money-spinner even today, more than 75 years after its initial release
TOKYO: Japanese entertainment giant Sony on Tuesday unveiled a $1.9-billion deal to buy industry titan EMI Music Publishing, which has the rights to songs by the likes of Queen and Pharrell Williams.
The deal adds a catalogue of more than two million songs — including some of the greatest hits from the first half of the 20th century — to Sony’s already huge repertoire.
The agreement is Sony’s first major deal under new CEO Kenichiro Yoshida, who noted the music business has enjoyed a “resurgence” in recent years due to streaming services provided by companies such as Spotify and Apple.
With this purchase, Sony “is becoming one of the biggest music publishing companies, both in name and reality,” Yoshida told reporters.
“We are thrilled to bring EMI Music Publishing into the Sony family and maintain our number-one position in the music publishing industry,” Yoshida said in an earlier statement.
“I believe this acquisition will be a particularly significant milestone for our long-term growth,” added Yoshira, who took the Sony helm last month.
Sony said it had signed a deal with Abu Dhabi-based investment firm Mubadala to buy its 60-percent holding, giving the Japanese firm an indirect stake of approximately 90 percent.
The agreement values EMI Music Publishing at $4.75 billion, the Sony statement said, adding that “the closing of the transaction is subject to certain closing conditions, including regulatory approvals.”
Yoshida also Tuesday unveiled Sony’s latest strategic plan, which aims to bolster its content business — pursuing the direction his predecessor Kazuo Hirai had taken to revitalize one of Japan’s best-known firms.
“We are a technology firm, but the technology means not only electronics but also entertainment and content-creation” in today’s world, Yoshida said.
Sony will continue to build up its content services — as shown by Tuesday’s deal — and also invest heavily in cutting-edge technologies including image sensors, he said.
“This is part of Sony’s strategy under Yoshida to beef up its entertainment businesses,” noted Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at Ace Research Institute in Tokyo.
“In the music business, copyrights are crucial. So, the deal is meaningful, and its price appears practical and reasonable,” the analyst said, adding that success would depend on the quality of the content Sony creates in the future.
The electronics and entertainment behemoth last month reported record annual profits of $4.5 billion, a roaring recovery supported by better sales across the board and helped by box office blockbusters like its Jumanji reboot.
Those figures were seen as a fitting send-off for Hirai, who recently stepped down as the firm’s chief executive after spending the past six years pulling the firm out of deep financial troubles.
Hirai led an aggressive restructuring drive at Sony, cutting thousands of jobs while selling business units and assets.
EMI is the second-largest music publishing company by revenue and either owns or administers some two million songs, including classics by the likes of Queen, Sam Smith and Pharrell Williams.
As for Sony, it already owns 2.3 million copyrights, including the Beatles catalogue, as well as being a massive player in IT, communications, film and gaming.
EMI holds a “comprehensive and diverse collection of copyrights for music and lyrics” from a “wide variety of iconic and popular songwriters,” the statement said.
Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” continues to be a top-10 money-spinner even today, more than 75 years after its initial release, it added.
Current songwriters under its banner include Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Drake, Pink, Fetty Wap and Hozier.
Investors appeared dubious about the acquisition and the new strategic plan however, with Sony stock down around 1.2 percent in the afternoon, underperforming the wider Japanese market, which was fractionally weaker.