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“The US market could well be at least 10x bigger, and Europe 5x”

Interview - August 25, 2016

Corporations are continually searching for ways to cut labor costs and the result is a greater global embrace of robotic technology, particularly in light of aging populations putting more pressure on shortages in the workforce. Eiji Takagi, President of Robotic Biology Institute Inc. (RBI), discusses the rise of robotics and the huge growth coming to the US market in particular.



How would you assess the Japanese robotics industry today, the advances made, and its leadership on a global level?

Up until now, the main goal pursued by robotic makers was to cut the cost of human labor. Today the approach has changed, robotics efforts go beyond the simple labor cost reduction and focus on creating more sophisticated human-type or human-designed robots that can add further value to the production process. For example we want to make robots that are able to achieve things just as humans do – the same kind of tasks that humans can also perform. Robot automation is closely related to the automobile industry, yet in the future we will see robots increasingly contribute to the industrial world, and touch more and more industries.

Alongside with other robot makers, RBI is placing efforts into the development of new types of robots with a strong focus on the bio-medical field. We are trying to find ways to contribute and add to the spectrum of robotic applications as we have found that we can design robots that can have very useful applications for the future. Other companies are also taking a similar path as us, but it has proved hard for them to find the benefits and financial positives in these kinds of industries. We have tried to focus on areas such as elderly care, the food industry or the agriculture business, however we couldn’t find many forms of application in these fields; because we would be just replacing people’s work, the labor costs are not affordable.


You mentioned your ambitions are to develop a center where you can have a viral type of research of the Internet of Things (IoT) around the globe, where you can attract everyone to one platform?

Well actually, this is a stage of the positioning strategy. If this protocol is written in a local language, people may interpret it in different ways. There are some deviations in how people understand it; we are trying to make these protocols in semantics. Then we can easily exchange it through the internet, because one language has only one interpretation, not many. So we have to unify and unite the different ontologies in this sense. If it’s written in this semantic language, it could become interchangeable on a global basis.

We also have this cloud scheme, which is based on this sort of laboratory management system. No other company thinks this way; some of them think that the internet controls the IoT concept in this biology area, but they don’t actually have the robot tool that can precisely work like ours. We have this concept, the structure. And then we have this robotic system, which gets real work done. That’s our biggest difference; and here we have at least five years of advantage.


Can you provide us with some insights on RBI’s role and the types of synergies achieved with such a close relationship to Yaskawa? Are you still hand-in-hand in terms of partnership?

Only Yaskawa is able to supply these robots on a global basis. Sooner or later the industry will notice how much potential this area holds. Many other companies are looking into other areas for a new application. Some companies might think of biohazard applications, which is quite an obvious step.


Robot demand continues to be strong; the 2014 World Robot Statistics report forecasts global installations will expand 12% on an average annual basis from 2015 through 2017. How do you feel that you are positioned today and what are your sales and business forecasts for the next few years?

Everybody wants to have a standardized process, and so the biggest strength that we have is the reproducibility. Regarding our positioning, what we are trying to achieve right now is to spread this kind of technology, focusing primarily on the Japanese market – and more particularly on the pharmaceutical industry, as our validated processes that can shared not only amongst researchers, but also amongst facilities.

Research centers and institutes have a multiplicity of locations, and each center has different capabilities from one another. If robots are placed for working within certain parameters, experiments can be replicated anywhere; in that sense, pharmaceutical companies can really derive a lot of benefits from having this system.

The academic arena can also benefit from it and transfer difficult tasks that only highly skilled humans can accomplish, to a robot. The pharmaceutical companies are the first target, then academia. Such type of automation can clearly contribute to the advancement of science in certain fields.

The US market represents the world’s third largest robot market and with growth continuing to increase by 11% over 2016. What potential do you believe the US market holds for you?

Simply looking at the size and population, we can comfortably say that the US holds great potential for us. If we can find a good partner interested in this kind of technology to use for their research, then maybe we can form a partnership. We haven’t talked to a large number of people yet, but we have two representatives currently working for us overseas – one in the US, in Boston, and one in Switzerland, and they are trying to make these kinds of partnerships happen.


Do you have plans for road shows or participating in events in the US?

Yes we do, we intend to go to the US for the first time at the end of the year.


How do you see the US potential for that kind of technology?

The potential is huge and the United States is the biggest target market for us, clearly. Japan represents about 8% of the total market for robotics, perhaps even less than now with China’s share increasing dramatically. We believe that over the next five to eight years, 300 to 500 units should be produced; this will of course depend on a variety of factors as well, including the costs – this isn’t a cheap product to produce. The US market could well be at least 10 times bigger, and Europe maybe five times.

We are really just launching at the moment, so we are only at the beginning, and the launching stage is the most difficult. I personally believe that the potential for robots in the market could be even bigger, if you think that every researcher could have their own robot, just the same way everyone owns a laptop today.

Within our field of biology, we started on a very small-scale basis, only doing demonstrations and experimentations. But in the future, if we find that many researchers want to use our technology but can’t afford to buy it, then we may consider building more large-scale robotic biology centers, where we operate 20 or 30 robots. In Southeast Asia in particular, this could be an ideal situation. Yet they would still have to program it by themselves. If they buy a robot, the program is already installed, so it would be very easy for them to catch up. That’s how we think. So in that case, instead of a thousand systems installed, maybe one robotic system and 550 robots, and 10 of those in the world at least; all of this should happen over the next 10 years. That would generate some income for us and also, become sort of an authorization unit, because it’s reproducible, so the FDA, or some official government institutions in other nations may like to use this.

I think this scenario is likely to happen, because there’s no other system that can assure this reproducibility. Robots can do it.


What would you like to tell our readers as a final message about RBI?

In any experiment, data variation commonly occurs by many unintended human factors. Among them are experimenter’s skill, physical or mental fitness, concentration and sometime grit. Data consistency and the reproducibility of results always depend on the experimenter’s capability and proficiency. Even for the most capable person in your laboratory, human error has been inevitable in any manual handling process.

This annoying issue is surely a bottleneck, making life science costly and time-consuming.

Many scientists are busily occupied in long-time and complicated bench work and labor jobs.

Our ultimate goal is to free up all scientists from such bench work and they will have more time to be creative and productive, and perform higher value tasks.