Japan aims to turn robotics into profit

Kana Inagaki in Tokyo
Models demonstrate a robot assistant to support people walking and standing up from a bed and moving to the toilet, during a press preview hosted by Japan's Panasonic in Tokyo.
Kazuhiro Nogi | AFP | Getty Images

Panasonic's Hideo Kawakami has wrestled with more failures than successes in his two-decade-long career in robot making. But he is betting thatthose decades of toil will bear fruit with his latest invention: a robotic bed.

Panasonic, along with a number of other Japanese manufacturers, is hoping to fix a longstanding paradox the country has grappled with: how to turn their knack for robotics into commercial reality.

Their latest endeavors come on the back of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's big push for robotics. In June, Mr Abe said he wants to treble the market for robots in Japan to Y2.4 trillion ($22 billion) by 2020, even proposing to organize a Robot Olympics when Japan hosts the summer games that year.

Last month, the government launched a "robot revolution realization council" to craft a five-year blueprint to beef up the industry.

"I plan to make robots a key pillar of our growth strategy," Mr Abe said.

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Since June, Panasonic has been selling a robotic bed that converts into a wheelchair – called Resyone – for about Y1 million ($9,200). In 2016, it plans to roll out another robotic device that will assist the elderly with walking and visits to the toilet.

In February, machinery maker Yaskawa Electric also said it will start selling in 2016 a device to transport a bed-ridden person from the bed to a wheelchair. Starting this autumn, Toyota Motor will start leasing robots that will help with rehabilitation of patients having trouble walking or maintaining balance.

Helped by these offerings, the government estimates the market for care service robots will reach $3.7 billion by 2035 from an estimated $155 million in 2015. Demand for these robots is acute in Japan with nearly a third of the population expected to be older than 65 in a decade.

Panasonic, traditionally known for its plasma televisions and housing appliances, hopes to increase sales of service robots and its nursing care business to Y200 billion by 2025, nearly an eight fold increase from the last fiscal year. Yaskawa hopes its service robot sales will quadruple to Y5 billion by the next fiscal year through March 2016.

Robotic booms in Japan pop up every few years and shrivel before the prototypes become actual products. Companies often packed cutting-edge technologies into the devices, making them both costly and difficult to use.

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Panasonic's Resyone was a byproduct of several conceptual models that flopped over the years. Earlier prototypes had robotics arms to carry the bed-ridden, but both the mechanical face and size of the device made users uneasy. Resyone now looks more like a normal bed.

"What the engineers want to develop doesn't often match what's needed on the ground. That gap had long been difficult to fill," Mr Kawakami,who headed the Resyone project, says.

Price is another hurdle companies need to overcome to make service robots mainstream. Currently, prices of robots range from several hundred dollars to more than $200,000.

"For nursing care robots, it's hard to know how much is cheap or expensive. What's needed is a properly priced robot with minimum functions,"says Shiro Sekiguchi, who heads a project to promote nursing care robots in Kanagawa prefecture, southwest of Tokyo.

But experts say it will become easier for companies to enter this market after a global safety standard was created this year, lowering liability risks for manufacturers. The greater the participation, the lower prices will become. Safety standard approval was issued for Cyberdyne's HAL exoskeleton suits and Panasonic's Resyone early this year.

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"It was hard for big firms to roll out robots, which entail risks that could affect the reputation of their core businesses," says Yushi Segawa, researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute.

"The issuance of the world's first safety standard for personal care robots will allow companies to ramp up their robotic activities," Mr Segawa adds.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which had long focused on aiding companies develop robotics technologies, has also started from last year to offer subsidies to companies to help with the costs of installing the robots. Eventually, it hopes the price of service robots in Japan will fall below $1,000.

But not all companies have shared Mr Abe's enthusiasm. Long-time industry watchers worry the interest in robots will fade again once the 2020 Olympics are over, and that companies will shut down their robotics division when economic conditions deteriorate.

Yaskawa Electric, which has been working on care robots for two decades, says prices will continue to be an obstacle in Japan. It is preparing to launch its robotic device for leg rehabilitation in China by next spring.

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"We're not optimistic at all. The Japanese market will no doubt expand, but it won't be overnight," Yaskawa said. "That's why we'll go overseas."

Japan's robotic boom

For two years and two months, a team of 15 employees at Murata Manufacturing quietly huddled to work on a secret project.

The veil was finally lifted last month as the electronics components maker showcased its latest invention: cheer-leading robots.

The compact "girl" robots in red dresses join a long list of Japan's quirky and mascot-like gadgetry inventions: Sony's Aibo dog; Honda Motor's dancing humanoid robot Asimo; and most recently Softbank's Pepper, a robot designed to recognize and respond to human emotions. Murata's launch also comes at a time when Japan is enjoying another of its cyclical – and often ephemeral – robotics booms. SoftBank will start selling Pepper for Y198,000 ($1,820) from next year while Panasonic will also market robots to assist the elderly with walking from 2016.

But for the Kyoto-based electronic components maker, robots are not about making money.

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"The objective is to demonstrate the company's identity. We're a parts maker but we wanted people to know the value of our electronic components," said Yuichi Kojima, Murata executive.

Murata Manufacturing is not a household name such as Sony and Panasonic, but its components are found in Apple and Samsung phones, cars, rice cookers, televisions and thermometers.

Though normally shy of the spotlight, robots are one of Murata's few publicity stints. Its bicycle-riding Murata Boy first came out in 1991,followed by a second model in 2005 and a unicycle-riding Murata Girl in 2008.

In its latest invention, a pack of 10 cheer-leading robots balance on balls to move around and dance. The three gyro sensors installed in each robot allows it to balance itself and the technology can be used to stabilize images for digital cameras and to prevent car skidding.

Other sensors and ultrasonic microphones used in the robots help them to move in synchronization. The robots also avoid bumping into each other using a communication module, a technology Murata hopes to use to prevent cars from colliding.

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Murata said the cheer-leading robots were developed for its 70th anniversary to symbolize its transition from simply being a components maker to a company providing solutions in new business areas such as cars and healthcare.

But in spite of their cute appearance, Mr Kojima emphasizes the robots are not for sale.