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Rise of the robots

Article - August 10, 2017

Smart machines save employment, increase productivity and enhance reliability. Welcome to the future.

The fourth industrial revolution is set to transform the way we work but few sectors will feel the effects of these changes more than global manufacturing companies.

Japan is positioning itself at the forefront of this change and with its expertise in manufacturing, particularly in consumer electronics, the country is emerging as a key player. It shipped $645.2 billion worth of goods last year and is now in the midst of shifting its focus from being simply a producer of consumer goods to having interests throughout the manufacturing chain.

The country’s pioneering development and use of robotics throughout the manufacturing industry is providing notable results, and with the global industrial robotics market expected to reach $79 billion by 2022, Japan is well placed to capitalize.
“We are the pioneers of automation and robotization for manufacturing sites,” explains Yoshiharu Inaba, Chairman and CEO at FANUC, which provides automation products and services such as robotics and computer numerical control systems.

The company, which had its beginnings as part of Fujitsu, is one of the largest makers of industrial robots in the world and developed early numerical control and servo systems, something Mr. Inaba says now sets it apart from its competitors.
“Throughout our years of operation, we have developed a unique set of skills based on experience. This accumulation of expertise allows us to advance and progress in a tough competitive environment, adds Mr. Inaba, who says the company has catered for B2B operations throughout its history. “Our technical expertise is coupled with the preciseness of Japanese manufacturing.”

“We are the pioneers of automation and robotization for manufacturing sites” Yoshiharu Inaba, Chairman and CEO, FANUC

Indeed, producing products with remarkably low deficit levels has become a mainstay for Japanese manufacturers and companies such as FANUC see this, and delivering greater efficiency, as central to their business. Sony’s automation activities, for example, have reduced defect rates from 2000 to 20 parts per million.

Mr. Inaba argues that robotics will not only improve manufacturing processes but deliver a “society where there would only be three work days of five hours for an even better result and delivery. The decrease of manufacturing work will also create an increase for service-oriented jobs.

“Relying on automation processes and robots will be one of the solutions to answer our decreasing workforce and aging population,” he adds. “However, this solution is clearly not limited to Japan for it will be applicable to the entire world. Our industry is focused on developing robots that can help human beings. The idea is to have machines, robots and such, do the heavy and monotonous labor, while humans focus on precise and unique work.”

The motoring industry remains the global leader in the use of robotics, but electronics and metal firms are catching up fast with sales of industrial robots expected to rise to 2.6 million in 2019, up from 1.8 million today. Despite such rapid growth, Mr. Inaba says ensuring the safety of the robotics environment remains the most important consideration for this booming industry.

“To secure the safety of our robots, we have implemented our unique Dual Check Safety (DCS, a kind of dual circuit) function for all of our products, so that if one of our robots does something wrong, it immediately stops itself autonomously,” he explains.

“Alongside this DCS function, we also apply optical sensors so that if a human ever puts a hand in the way of the robot, the latter is able to recognize it and stop. These two examples are but a drop of the many activities that we conduct to ensure the utmost security of our robots.”

FANUC has also developed a unique open platform called the FIELD system, which allows the status of every operation to be visualized, resulting in smoother operation and enhanced efficiency.

“One of the key characteristics of this FIELD system is that it enables robot-to-robot communication, machine-to-machine communication, as well as communication amongst robots and machines,” says Mr. Inaba, who adds that AI technologies are also being adopted. It is another indication of just how quickly FANUC, and this forward-looking sector as a whole, is adapting to a rapidly changing world.