Mr. Yasuhiko Hashimoto, Chairman of iREX 2017 and Managing Executive Officer of Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ Robotics Division, speaks with The Worldfolio about why iREX 2017 is the leading event for the global robotics industry, the growing role robots are playing in our societies, and the innovative work at Kawasaki Robotics
The IoT industry is estimated to reach a global value of $14.4 trillion by 2022. Can you please share your personal perspective on the status of the industry today and what the future holds when it comes to applications of IoT, AI, and Big Data?
IoT will drastically reduce the distance not only between the manufacturer and the customer, but also within the manufacturer’s plant itself, thereby streamlining the different processes and eliminating inefficiency. Moreover, IoT will facilitate the estimation of future trends thanks to accurate monitoring activities and new data that will be developed.
Manufacturers will therefore be able to adjust to customers’ requirements and revert back to them in a timelier fashion. In this way, distance can be almost eliminated not only within Japan but also between Japanese companies and overseas customers that can also enhance trust among the players.
Another aspect is of course speed. Not only speed in the development of the product, but also in terms of its manufacturing and adjustment based on the customers’ feedback. Specifically, in the case of industrial robots, IoT allows real time and remote monitoring which further eliminates distances. This is not only from a purely manufacturing perspective, but also in terms of software changes and further developments. This new technology enables therefore a different decision-making process when it comes to business strategies and communication. We can now more easily and efficiently decide where to set up manufacturing sites and strategic headquarters.
Manufacturers of course look at those opportunities you just mentioned. However, there is growing skepticism when it comes to issues such as privacy or even cyber-attacks that could disrupt production activities that are so technologically interlinked or that over rely on M2M (machine-to-machine) interactions. What is your personal point of view on this matter?
Technology will always be controlled by humans. So, the question is more directly linked to the goodwill of people utilizing this technology. The new frontier is of course applying IoT to sophisticated industrial robots and we see that many large manufacturers are uncertain about this move, precisely because there could be some risk of disruption not from the outside, but from the inside.
We can provide a system, similar to a VPN, that cuts off the communication but that still allows the customer to intervene within the system in case of emergency. Certainly, the higher sophistication of the technology goes hand in hand with the necessity of higher standards in terms of safety and security.
Could you give our readers an overview about the genesis and evolution of Kawasaki Robotics over its history?
We are now preparing some ceremonies to celebrate our 50th anniversary. In 1968, some of our executives traveled to the U.S. and learned about robotics technology. They immediately understood that robotics was crucial for the development of industry in Japan. So they began to manufacture the first robots in Japan, which were hydraulic robots.
Cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. or Europe also played a key role in the development of the industry. On the one hand, Japanese people are accustomed to seeing and playing with robots. So, robots are seen as friendly. However, in the West, there is a tendency of portraying robots as a threat to human activities.
On the other hand, the difference in the labor union systems played an important role. In Japan, if a robot replaces a job for safety reasons, the worker simply switches position becoming, for instance, the robot operator. The worker doesn’t lose their jobs at the expense of the adoption of robots. In the West, workers fear for their job because trade unions are organized differently.
The first robot in Japan was delivered in 1969 for the automotive industry. This is the starting point of the robot industry in the country. Before that only one or two robots were used. Robots were utilized for activities that were unsafe or too hard for humans.
Of course, automotive plays a big role for the robotics industry. But Kawasaki Robotics is trying to expand the business to what we refer to as “general industries.” So, we develop press machines or machine tools, for instance. Another industry that is very important nowadays is semiconductors. Kawasaki Robotics now holds the largest share of the global semiconductor market – more than 50 percent.
By 1988, we had developed a robot for medical purposes. We were probably way too ahead of the time back then. However, I think the time is ripe now.
We have continuous discussions with our customers to adjust to their new requirements on a regular basis. Our focus is to customize all our solutions. This is why we are very successful in the semiconductors industry, which requires very flexible solutions. I worked in California from 2001 to 2009 with the objective of expanding the business to the semiconductors industry. I also wanted to diversify business segments and that’s why I am currently pushing to create new collaborations in the medical sector. In 2013 we created a collaboration with Sysmex in the medical robot area and we are now expanding the business and pioneering new solutions in this medical segment.
What segments offer Kawasaki Robotics the highest growth potential in Japan and overseas?
To answer your question, I think it’s essential to start from a premise about our business philosophy. Part of our philosophy hinges around the challenge of the aging society. To give you an image of the issue in Japan, every year 640,000 people retire. This creates a huge shortage in the labor supply. Especially younger generations, as we were saying earlier, may get scared about this technology. But if you consider the magnitude of the challenge, you immediately see that the scarcity of labor supply is far greater than the capability of robot supply.
The way we interpret the role of robots is a complementary one to human activities. Robots will help us to overcome these socio-economic issues and create a safer labor environment. Furthermore, it is a fact that in Japan, corporations that utilize robots pay higher salaries to the workers. This is natural considering that the workers will be required to have higher skills to handle the sophisticated machines.
With more than 300 exhibitors and over 100,000 visitors, iREX claims to be the largest robot trade shows in the world, with two broad categories: the industrial robot zone, and the service robot zone. What is your personal opinion about the meaning of the overarching theme of iREX 2017: “The Robot Revolution Has Begun–Toward a Heartwarming Society”?
In my opinion the theme underlines the need for the application of robots for the enhancement of social welfare. For customers and social purposes alike. We have to counterbalance this image of robot invasion. At iREX 2017, we will show how we conceive the robots for the future with the objective to positively contribute to the business objectives of our customers but also to create a safer and more efficient environment.
Will robots make some workers obsolete? Or is it just a new cycle that will create new high-skilled jobs and replace unskilled work?
Undeniably there are jobs that are more suitable for humans and vice versa. I see the two as complementary. It is up to the business leaders to decide how to distribute human resources to more creative activities and apply robots for hard working activities and for safety reasons.
Corporations that are facing hard financial situations may decide to adopt robots to avoid bankruptcy but in Japan there are instances of corporations utilizing robots because they want to lower salaries. In fact, if you take into consideration not only Japan but also China, the salaries are growing in companies that utilize robots.
So again, I don’t really see this battle between labor force and robots. To give you an example: one of the indicators more commonly used is the number of robots per 10,000 workers. In Singapore this indicator stands at 600 per 10,000 workers, or 6 percent. In Japan, it’s 300 per 10,000 workers, so 3 percent. The share, as you can see, is minimal.
Why would you like to invite potential customers and all relevant stakeholders from all over the world to come to visit iREX 2017?
I’d like to invite potential customers to come and explore how we can shape the future together. Let’s try to find solutions together for the wellbeing of our societies. We cannot just think about profit making. With this attitude we are probably going to fail to achieve new dreams. So, we want all stakeholders to take part in this event and explore what we can achieve together.