The Androbo Group continues to push the bounds of robotics in support of next generation industry
Over the past 30 years, Japan has seen the rise of regional that replicated the Japanese monozukuri process with lower labor costs. This has pushed Japan out of certain industrial markets. However, Japanese firms still lead in niche B2B fields such as robotics. How have Japanese firms maintained their leadership despite the stiff price competition?
The strength of Japanese manufacturing lies in the diligence of the Japanese people. Tokyo is advanced, but regionally, they are behind in a good way because local companies focus on niche technologies that they constantly keep improving even though it is not considered mainstream. The diligence of the Japanese people created a fertile working environment. Diligence and hard work are intrinsic characteristics of the Japanese. It is not something that needs to be taught. People are just naturally that way. We are focused on Tohoku because many of our employees are from Tohoku. Our company was established after the Great Eastern Japan earthquake when we tried to figure out what we could do to help the afflicted areas.
Japan's demographic is shrinking and rapidly aging at the same time, with difficulties including a smaller labor pool as well as a shrinking domestic market stemming from this. What are some of the challenges and opportunities Japan's demographic shift presented to your company?
The population decline is posing a great threat to our company. Our company is dependent on human resources and hiring talented engineers. If we cannot hire workers, we will have a very big problem. Japanese diligence is hindering population growth because people are so worried about their future. People are taking everything so seriously, so it is hard to feel optimism toward our current society. When our society and economy improve, and people have an assurance of future income, there will be more people getting married and having children. To compensate for the shortage of human labor in Japan, we are trying to go abroad and create stable partnerships with overseas companies such as the one we have in China. We also now have a company in the Philippines. We are expanding our overseas network from these centralized areas.
Population growth is affected by socioeconomic conditions and Japan's economic situation has been impacted by COVID and the challenges it has created over the last three years including shipping and logistic issues. On the other hand, there is an increase in e-commerce and many companies have started to employ digital technologies to allow for remote working environments. How has COVID impacted your business so far?
My workload has decreased due to COVID. As a diligent Japanese citizen, I was overworking before COVID. However, during the pandemic, we realized that we have to change our working style to be sustainable. For example, our focus initially was on industrial robots, but service robots have advanced greatly due to COVID, especially in hospitals that had COVID wards. The work of transporting to these areas can be replaced with service robots. Hospital environments have changed and people can now coexist with service robots. There were many downsides to COVID, but there were also good changes that happened because of it.
Experts' 10-year prediction on service robots is somewhat disappointing. Many people thought that service robots would be all around us in sectors like hospitality. The fact, however, is that their presence is still not felt. Some of the world's most sold service robots are only a marketing success but not necessarily a commercial one. Why have service robots not been adopted as fast as people thought? Which sectors of the economy do you think are the readiest to adopt these service robots?
The reason why service robots have not penetrated Japan yet is that the Japanese at a young age have received their robotics education through manga or comics. People have the image of Atom or Doraemon who can do everything on behalf of people. The superhero image of robotics has made the Japanese people, both the providers and receivers, suffer because of the expectations of having robots with no limitations. In reality, robotics is complex and it is an accumulation of small technologies that constantly need improvements. However, I feel that we do not have much allowance or room to make these improvements. When we conducted sales on our service robots before COVID, people were not impressed with the limited functions and features of our robots. In their due diligence, many would immediately look at robots in terms of their cost-effectiveness. There is no element of playfulness where one looks at the non-economic aspect of incorporating robots.
COVID has brought about change and there are now fewer foreign workers in Japan. With the shortage of manpower, we are actively looking at utilizing robots, especially in areas of cleaning and sanitizing. Japan has a lot of tight spaces that require a lot of cleaning daily including areas in hospitals and commercial facilities. The best sectors to incorporate robots would be in fields that are not too focused on cost-effectivity or economic value. Japanese building spaces are often tight. We tried to enter the restaurant and food & beverage industry, but restaurant spaces are so tight that it is better for people to transport food rather than robots. We are now focusing on collaborating with construction companies during the design phase to create spaces that can accommodate the use of robots.
Japanese architectural and construction laws are so strict. As an example, we cannot send signals to remotely control elevators. The buttons have to be physically pressed. We are now developing a robot that can press buttons. When the current regulation is lifted, we can start remotely controlling elevators. We are continually taking such actions to create a good environment for robots.
One service robot you have created is Mospeng, a marketing robot designed to attract people at trade shows or similar events where it can hand out leaflets. Furthermore, it has also been utilized in museums to explain different exhibits. What other applications do you envision for Mospeng?
Mospeng came about because we wanted to do something unique to Japan, such as creating a robot that hands out tissues. Although people usually hand out tissues, it can be more effective to hand them out with robots. Children are excited to receive tissues from robots and it can also spark their interest in robotics. This is how we started our operations. There were no laws on robotics yet when we first took our robots outside. However, the robot was considered a vehicle, so we got fined for parking.
Another product that you have developed is Frutera, which is efficient in non-contact transport and based on map information, customers can determine routes and destinations without any additional equipment. What were your motivations in developing Frutera, and what are your expectations for it moving forward?
The Frutera system was developed and incorporated during COVID when non-contact was a priority. Robots were introduced especially in hospitals and restaurants lacking servers. The hardware for this robot was developed by a Chinese venture company we have collaborated with. We provided the software and determined different areas of applications and services. The Chinese are advanced in the hardware aspect, but the Japanese are more thorough in providing services. We combined our strengths to create a synergetic effect for both companies. The robot is currently used in Haneda Innovation City. We are trying to increase our service robots in the food delivery area, so people can order food and have them delivered. We are focusing on areas related to personal services and on creating an environment where people and robots can coexist.
People often have the misperception that robotics has to be a piece of tangible hardware, but they are way beyond just hardware. Recently, ChatGPT emerged which allows the automation of coding and automates discussions or basic research for academic papers. As your company develops hardware and automation solutions, what sectors of our daily lives will be disrupted with this automation on a more software side? Is your company looking to develop such types of solutions?
We are aggressively seeking to develop new products and cater to emerging and evolving industries. The industries that would suffer the most disruption when it comes to IT advancement would be the fields of construction, manufacturing and agriculture. Generally, Japan is behind in the introduction and implementation of IT, but this is especially true in these three areas. Japan has top-notch manufacturing capabilities, but it is still analog. Automation is still not incorporated to have more efficient production and cut lead times in half. Most Japanese companies are still using paper and are delivering by post which requires up to a couple of days. Once these unnecessary steps are eliminated, the Japanese manufacturing industry will make advancements. We want to take part in revolutionizing the field.
It is typical for new companies in Japan to find their footing here. Your firm is relatively young in a very competitive field. What were some of the challenges you have faced during your short history, and how have you overcome them?
When we established our company, the Japanese business atmosphere was strict and harsh towards SMEs and ventures. Even though we were just a start-up, we were required to be in the black financially. They did not look at our existing technologies. This is partly because of their lack of awareness of IT. It was difficult for us to find contracts. We are always competing or trying to convince clients and potential customers. Keeping company traditions is good in a way because it leads to accumulated technology, but we also have to be flexible and responsive and incorporate IT and new technologies to meet constantly changing demands. This is what we are trying to do.
Before COVID, we were actively going overseas to learn about the latest technologies, especially in China which now has a growing market. This same phenomenon happened in Japan before. The Chinese have been able to learn from the Japanese and overcome the challenge. By learning from China and other countries around the world, we want to be flexible and open-minded and take new technologies back to Japan. We are now able to find our footing in Japan and feel that we can revolutionize the manufacturing industry here.
In 2014, you opened operations in the Philippines. What other countries or regions have you identified for further expansion and what strategies are you looking to employ?
We expanded in the Philippines because they were listed as one of the next 11 countries in Asia that will develop. They have a balanced demographic pyramid. When we went there, the population was about 90 million. It is now over 100 million. It is a growing population with a lot of young people. It is also an English-speaking country, so we decided that it is a good country for us to enter. Filipinos also have a certain affinity towards Japan so that is an advantage for us. If the locals were against us, it would have been a challenge to start a business there. I was under the impression that Southeast Asian people can be a little slack but they are diligent. They are taking on the challenge of developing more advanced technologies. The country is already changing and we feel that is a great base for us to evolve in the Asian market.
Our international strategy is to focus on the Southeast Asian market, especially in areas where major Japanese companies are present. We would like to work together with other Japanese companies to provide holistic Japanese technology. Our original strategy was to go to areas where there are no Japanese companies. When we established our company in the Philippines, there were no Japanese IT companies. However, we learned that there were many Korean companies. Perhaps this is because of the US-Korean base in Clark during the Vietnam War. We realized that the Korean companies were working together and collaborating as a team to remain competitive in the local area. This taught us that Japanese companies also needed to work as a team and collaborate to fully execute Japanese companies’ strengths and capabilities and be competitive.
Your company was founded in 2008 and it will be your 20th anniversary in 2028. If we come back on your 20th anniversary, is there a goal or an objective that you would like to have achieved by then?
My current objective is to realize what we are currently working on. It is important to create a happy and challenging environment as a nation. Japan right now has a gloom and doom atmosphere that needs to be lifted to create a better national spirit and have an environment that nurtures people and allows them to take on challenges even when they fail. I want to remain excited about tackling new challenges. It would be sad if I realize my mission in five years but end up being exhausted and losing my joy. Keeping the excitement and remaining joyful is critical to my career.
Interview conducted by Karune Walker & Antoine Azoulay