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“Robotics goes as far as the limit of humans’ imagination”

Interview - November 8, 2015

As the world becomes more automated every day, Japanese manufacturer Yaskawa Electric Corporation takes its customers to the next level with it all-electric industrial robots. Junji Tsuda, Representative Director, Chairman of the Board and President of Yaskawa Electric Corporation Junji Tsuda delves into the global robotic systems market and the impact of artificial intelligence applications on industry. 



Prime Minister Abe has promised a “robot revolution” including deregulation and research funding to double Japan’s robot market size in manufacturing from 600 billion yen ($5 billion) to 1.2 trillion yen, but do you think enough is being done to promote and facilitate the robotics sector globally?

To tell you the truth, the strategy seems a little bit too much domestic. We should first see how to grow the global market of robotics rather than grow the Japanese market. The robotic market in Japan is still the biggest in the world (although you can say that it is competing with the Chinese market now, in term of size).

So, rather than just growing domestically by ourselves, we should grow the global market to increase the participation of Japanese companies; that is much more important. To do so, there are two other things that we have to do. One thing is to develop new technologies here. That is much more important. And the second thing is to really watch the market, and to act globally rather than domestically.


How do you stimulate the global robotic sector development? As one of the leaders in this field, how are you working to stimulate the demand and the interest in your products?

That’s a very difficult question. It is indeed the core of our strategy. Even if we are talking about robotics, you need engineers to use robotics. At the beginning, we started to talk about the global issue and about robotics and human beings. We do need the correlation of robot technology and production technology that can bring an engineer. That’s the first thing we have to do, find more effective engineers. In Japan, unfortunately, we don’t see an increase of engineers yet.

That is actually my biggest problem in order to extend the market of robotics here. We have specific applications in Japan, mostly robotized applications like automobiles or appliances and semiconductors. But, when it comes to the general market, we need more engineers here.


I remember a recent interview you gave to the Financial Times when you talked about the need for engineers. Are you maybe partnering with leading universities such as Tohoku?

That is only the development portion of the problem. But when it comes to experimenting and executing, you need tens of thousands of engineers. We have to create those engineers.


2015 has been a very meaningful year for your company, as Yaskawa has been celebrating its 100th anniversary, and to mark the occasion you have created I believe the world’s first robot village in Kitakyushu. Can you outline this project and maybe explain why it is so important to reducing negative misconceptions about the symbiotic relations that humans and robots can enjoy?

Robotics is not hardware. It is more a system. It consists of a brain and sensors and actuators. It is truly a portion of an entire system, so multiple robots can be running products on a line. For example if you take one portion of this system, the brain, it consists of a lot of things. Recently artificial intelligence has been playing a big part of that brain. Control technology, trajectory control, motion control, safety control, those are the most important. Yes, definitely the most important thing is safety control!

We spend about one-third of our software power to protect the safety of our customers. We definitely can not have robots hurting people, so that is the biggest thing we take care of, before everything else.


Actually, AI is very much popular in the news right now. Even leaders like Elon Musk and Bill Gates have said that this potentially could be a threat.

Artificial intelligence is only a portion of the robotic system. It is still a small portion. People talk a lot about it, but it is yet to be more developed and used. But it is true that it will definitely influence a lot the development of robotics utilization, like the humanoid “Pepper” which is used in a Japanese company, SoftBank. It is still a robot. It is just a man/machine interface. That’s the reason I say A.I is a very small portion of robotics.


How far away do you think we are from AI really contributing? Ten or 20 years?

It will probably have a big influence before that. Like I mentioned earlier, we need tens of thousands of engineers, but with the help of AI we can decrease that number of engineers down to one-third.

A.I is definitely the future, and it might come sooner than we think because to do engineering, artificial intelligence means a lot for us. AI itself does not help the robotics movement for now but it would be mostly helpful for engineering, that’s for sure.


Your products can be utilized in almost every imaginable sector, from manufacturing to medical devices and automated warehouses. Now I believe you are pushing more into renewable energies. What does the future of Yaskawa look like?

It goes as far as the limit of humans’ imagination. It can go anywhere.


Where are you focusing your research and development? Where do you see more opportunities for growth, and what sectors do you have in mind?

We started with what we call the 3D. It is the initials for the Japanese dirty, difficult and dangerous. Those are the areas where we have focused our robotics application, because there are some tasks that a human being should never have to do, and it should be robotic instead. And here in Yaskawa this is what we have tried to do for the last 30 years.

Now robotics is shifting to a little bit into more sophisticated area: the quality control area. Robotics is much more precise than human, and it’s immediate. For the purpose of quality control, robotics is a very good application, like for the food industry for example. If you take a fried chicken factory, they pick up chickens, tiny pieces of it. Humans can make mistakes while robots can’t. Those factories should all be robotized to avoid problems. It is the same with the biomedical area.


Yaskawa Electrics has a very international profile with 70% of your sales coming from abroad and indeed, a very strong connection to the United States with Yaskawa America. Can you outline your current plans for international expansion and maybe how important the American market is to your growth strategies?

The USA has been a very good market for us so far. It has been so for the last 30 years. It is a mature market, but it is still evolving steadily, a little bit gradually. In general, our revenue growth doubles with the GDP growth of the country we are established in. When the US market grows 3%, that means 6% growth for us. The market is moving a little bit faster than the GDP, especially in the area of the industry.


How much time do you spend educating potential customers and clients about the benefits of your products? Do you think that manufacturers and product technologies in different sectors understand the potential to use your products?

When it comes to automobile or appliance companies, those are the companies that have engineers, a lot of engineers, internally. They understand how to use robots and how to plan the factory taking the robots into consideration. Outside of those industries we have to, in a sense, educate the customers as to how to plan their factories, or other products and lines. We have currently what we call robot centers where customers can test and study the robots with us. It’s been working very well so far and we have positive feedback from it.


You mentioned engineers and having the right amount of engineers to be very important, but what other big challenges are you facing to continue to grow?

There is still a big gap between what people are trying to do, or what they think they want to achieve, and the technology of robotics. Robots are still far behind. When you look at a human, they are so nicely made that it is a model that is difficult to recreate. Imagine that we have about 10,000 sensors on our palm. But you cannot possibly put 10,000 sensors on the robotics hand or it will be 1,000 kilograms.

You talked about dirty, difficult and dangerous, but what are the areas where humans and robots can have a symbiotic relationship, areas where they really can be mutually beneficial to each other?

Another area where robots are going to be a major help is precision and speed. Precision will be one of the keys for the application of robotics, like in biochemicals. When a factory creates medicine, it has to be exactly the same doses and amount of components. Using robotics will ensure much better quality than what humans can accomplish.

As I mentioned, robotics is a big system. Each robot contains a lot of technologies. It used to be possible to implement the development of robotics just by ourselves, inside the corporation. But this technology that we use inside the system of robotics is expanding so rapidly, that we may need to go outside of Yaskawa or Japan. We have to collaborate with the USA, Europe, even sometimes China.


Do you think that is a shared opinion? Do you think engineers at Tesla or other major companies are also looking to Yaskawa to learn and to integrate each other’s technologies?

I think so. Everybody’s talking about open innovation. I think that is a proper trend we have to follow. Again, robotics is, in a sense, a big system with a variety of technologies in it. Maybe one of them that I didn’t mention is the application knowledge. You need to teach the robot what to do and how to act. You cannot have one solution. You have to have tens of thousands of solutions. You need multiple robots to work as a system. That is why people are starting to talk about industry 4.0 these days. If it’s just a concept of manufacturing a variety of products with mass volume, it’s already done in Japan, but that doesn’t mean it’s been done properly. We can make it more adequate and more efficient.


What would you say has been the impact of Abenomics on the manufacturing sector or indeed Yaskawa specifically?

At Yaskawa most of our sales are going abroad, that is 70% of our revenue, which is why the domestic economy itself does not influence our performance too much. But we need to have in mind that Japan is a place where we do future development. We are trying to create the future manufacturing here to expand it later to the world.

I would say that Abenomics are stimulating people’s mindset to do something rather than just sit and wait. We are starting to see some change in society.

I remember the situation of the economy after the late ‘70s in Japan. Those were the days when everybody tried to create something different and to create something even better than the world already had at that time. The trend was to shift the domestic market to the foreign market. Unfortunately, I would say for 20 years of recession in Japan, we didn’t see that big movement. The mindset has changed. Unfortunately I do not see a change of a significant number yet.


What opportunities do you see with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for Yaskawa, considering you have a significant presence not only in the US but also within the Asia-Pacific region?

For Yaskawa itself, the TPP does not have a big influence yet. Our strategy is to manufacture the product where the market is. So the TPP itself does not mean much but the positive point is that it will bring together the countries to obey the same rules of customs or, for example, taxes. That is a good thing.


What would you say to the international community who may still be hesitant to invest in Japan or do business with a Japanese company?

That’s a really good point. I would say all companies have promising futures. If you take a look at some specific industries or some specific companies, they have a very good mindset to grow not just domestically but globally as well. Amazingly these days after Abenomics started, everybody tried to change. Everybody’s trying to innovate themselves. It’s a big change we started to see. Mindsets are definitely changing.


What advice would you give to other Japanese CEOs and chairmen who are interested in following in Yaskawa’s footsteps in creating global companies? What are the keys to globalization that you are applying?

Actually I would say we have a different mindset than the others. I mentioned that we manufacture where the market is. We do that for the management as well.

Local is the key for us. Each area or each country has a different culture and is based on that culture or history, so they each have a different structure. We cannot change it. The role of the manufacturers is different in each country. We need to have, to some extent, different products or different systems to promote our product and to work with the customers in each country. I think it has worked very well for us so far.

And if you look beyond that, the American companies that have been successful in Japan are the ones that adapted to Japanese culture very nicely, like IBM, Xerox, Coca-Cola and not tried to force their way.


What final message would you like to send to the leaders of the G7? What would you say is the new brand of Japan as it leaves behind two decades of poor economic growth and deflation?

Abenomics started to talk about GDP. I know it is important, but because of the reduction of our population I think we need to change the target and see what we can do about having a better quality of life in Japan, rather than focusing on the GDP.