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Robots get real

Epson’s prototype for the production-line robot of the future tells us a lot about where automation technology is headed, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

He’s less than a year old, doesn’t talk yet, and is learning to identify, grasp, sort and move objects around. He’s not human, though. “He” is a new baby that has emerged from Seiko-Epson’s research and design facility in Toyoshina, in central Japan’s picturesque Nagano region.

An operator starts up the Epson Robot prototype at a research facility in Nagano, Japan. PIC: ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

The Autonomous Dual-arm Robot – the acronym is ADAR, so let’s call him Adam – is referred to simply as the Epson Robot, but the temptation to name him is irresistible. His face is a stereo camera with a tilt mechanism, but he also has a hand-eye camera in his hands. This allows for 3D object recognition, obstacle avoidance and visual inspection. All features that make him a great asset on the factory floor.

It’s not just a nice-to-have for Epson.

We intend to change the world of manufacturing,” said the company’s global president, Minoru Usui, in an interview in Nagano last week. “Based on our production expertise, we now have industrial robots that are world leaders.

In ten to twenty years, I see a world where people are released from manual work to concentrate on work that demands human intelligence. We will solve issues like labour shortages, skills shortages and dangerous working conditions.

Epson invested $160-million in its own production lines in 2103, and expects to invest a further $100-million this year, in pursuit of its “Sho Sho Sei” vision, Japanese shorthand for “Compact, Energy-saving, High-precision”.

Meanwhile, the company is expecting a boom in the market for “compact robots” used on assembly lines, comprising 6-axis robots and a category called SCARA, for Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm. From a $580-million market in 2012, it’s expected to rise to $780-million by 2016.

The Epson Robot demonstrates its ability to handle a variety of precision tasks. PIC: ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

Tsuyoshi Kitahara, Chief Operating Officer of the company’s Industrial Solutions division, says there are two main drivers of the growth in demand for such robots.

Manufacturing is returning to developed economies as labour costs and difficulty in acquiring labour rises in emerging economies. We have also seen an increase in high-mix, low-volume production and shortened product life spans.

Man meets robot: Arthur Goldstuck strikes up a friendship with the Epson Robot prototype.

Epson launched the first precision assembly SCARA robot in 1983, and now has 30 000 installed throughout the world, giving it a 31% global market share. But it has numerous competitors, and it will take the likes of Adam to maintain its leadership. It entered the 6-axis robot market only recently, and has a mere 4% market share – but that is an indication of its opportunity rather than weakness.

The Epson Robot prototype performs for the crowd in Nagano, Japan. PIC: SEIKO-EPSON

According to Kitahara, the company intends to evolve its offering in the medium-term from the current basic robots to high-value solutions for advanced automation, using pressure sensing, for example to handle fresh food. In the longer term, it will develop “next-generation robotic solutions”, which he sums up as “autonomous working robots that see, sense, and think”.

The think part is not about sentient robots, but rather the ability to “decide” what components and tools are needed for an operation, or what path to take to avoid objects. It will then be able to react by itself and work autonomously.

The new Epson Robot prototype, or Autonomous Dual-arm Robot. PIC: SEIKO-EPSON

The future of this technology, says Usui, is not confined to the production line, but will become part of assistive care and enhancing the lives of ordinary people. It does not hurt that it also looks good in the process.

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