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.”


China: Trump forces its hand, will retaliate against new US tariffs

Updated 5 min 16 sec ago
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China: Trump forces its hand, will retaliate against new US tariffs

  • The commerce ministry’s statement came hours after Trump said he was imposing 10 percent tariffs on about $200 billion worth of imports from China
  • The latest US duties spared smart watches from Apple and Fitbit and other consumer products such as baby car seats

BEIJING/WASHINGTON: China said on Tuesday that it has no choice but to retaliate against new US trade tariffs, raising the risk that President Donald Trump could soon impose duties on virtually all of the Chinese goods that America buys.
The commerce ministry’s statement came hours after Trump said he was imposing 10 percent tariffs on about $200 billion worth of imports from China, and threatened duties on about $267 billion more if China retaliated against the US action.
The brief statement gave no details on China’s plans, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing later that the US steps had brought “new uncertainty” to talks between the two countries.
“China has always emphasised that the only correct way to resolve the China-US trade issue is via talks and consultations held on an equal, sincere and mutually respectful basis. But at this time, everything the United States does does not give the impression of sincerity or goodwill,” he added.
Geng said he would not comment on “hypotheticals” such as what measures Beijing might consider apart from tariffs on US products, saying only that details would be released at the appropriate time.
Trump had warned on Monday that if China takes retaliatory action against US farmers or industries, “we will immediately pursue phase three, which is tariffs on approximately $267 billion of additional imports.”
The latest US duties spared smart watches from Apple and Fitbit and other consumer products such as baby car seats. But if the administration enacts the additional tariffs it would engulf all remaining US imports from China and Apple products like the iPhone and its competitors would not likely be spared.
Last month, China unveiled a proposed list of tariffs on $60 billion of US goods ranging from liquefied natural gas to certain types of aircraft — should Washington activate the tariffs on its $200 billion list.
China is reviewing plans to send a delegation to Washington for fresh talks in light of the US action, the South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday, citing a government source in Beijing.
Collection of tariffs on the long-anticipated US list will start on Sept. 24 but the rate will increase to 25 percent by the end of 2018, allowing US companies some time to adjust their supply chains to alternate countries.
So far, the United States has imposed tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese products to pressure Beijing to reduce its huge bilateral trade surplus and make sweeping changes to its trade, technology transfer and high-tech industrial subsidy policies.
Beijing has retaliated in kind, but some analysts and American businesses are concerned it could resort to other measures such as pressuring US companies operating in China.
A senior Chinese securities market official said US trade actions will not work as China has ample fiscal and monetary policy tools to cope with the impact. The government already has been ramping up spending on infrastructure.
“President Trump is a hard-hitting businessman, and he tries to put pressure on China so he can get concessions from our negotiations. I think that kind of tactic is not going to work with China,” Fang Xinghai, vice chairman of China’s securities regulator, said at a conference in the port city of Tianjin.
FURTHER TALKS IN DOUBT
Trump’s latest escalation of tariffs on China comes after several rounds of talks yielded no progress. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last week invited top Chinese officials to fresh discussions, but thus far nothing has been scheduled.
“We have been very clear about the type of changes that need to be made, and we have given China every opportunity to treat us more fairly,” Trump said in a statement. “But, so far, China has been unwilling to change its practices.”
Fang told the Tianjin forum that he hopes the two sides can sit down and talk, but added that the latest US move has “poisoned” the atmosphere.
A senior Trump administration official told reporters that the United States was open to further talks with Beijing, but offered no immediate details on when they may occur.
“This is not an effort to constrain China, but this is an effort to work with China and say, ‘It’s time you address these unfair trade practices that we’ve identified that others have identified and that have harmed the entire trading system,’” the official said.
So far, China has either imposed or proposed tariffs on $110 billion of US goods, representing most of its imports of American products.
“Tensions in the global economic system have manifested themselves in the US-China trade war, which is now seriously disrupting global supply chains,” the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China said in a statement on Tuesday.
China’s yuan currency slipped against the dollar on Tuesday after news of the US measures. It has weakened by about 6.0 percent since mid-June, offsetting the 10 percent tariff rate by a considerable margin.
CONSUMER TECH TRIMMED
The US Trade Representative’s office eliminated 297 product categories from the latest proposed tariff list, along with some subsets of other categories.
But the adjustments did little to appease technology and retail groups who argued US consumers would feel the pain.
“President Trump’s decision...is reckless and will create lasting harm to communities across the country,” said Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents major tech firms.
Kenneth Jarrett, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, said three quarters of its members will be hit by the tariffs, and they will not bring jobs back to the United States.
“Most of our member companies are ‘in China, for China’ — selling goods to Chinese companies and consumers, not to Americans — and thus ultimately boosting the US economy,” Jarrett said.