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At Tokyo's International Robotics Exhibition, Innovation Was the Star

Writtren by: Jeremie Capron, Director of Research

Last week, the ROBO Global team traveled to Toyko for a whirlwind week of meetings, research, and exploration at the bi-annual International Robotics Exhibition. One of the biggest industry events in the world, the conference hosted more than 130,000 visitors and featured more than 600 exhibitors and 2,775 booths. To say that the 50% growth of the show floor since just two years ago is impressive would be an understatement. But what was even more notable than the size of the event was the sheer magnitude of innovation that was present at every turn. Here are just a few of the highlights:

Intelligent robots took center stage.

Of course, “intelligence” is relative, but the leading industry players, including Fanuc, ABB, Yaskawa, and Kuka all demonstrated robots that embed significantly more intelligence than two years ago. One of the most impressive examples: Kawasaki Robotics demonstrated a new robot that can learn how to manage the intricate process of aligning component pins on a car seat to install it on a car frame. We watched as a human instructor used a joystick to help the robot maneuver and “feel” the holes so it could successfully slide the pins into place. After a few dozen guided attempts, the robot was able to learn the process, and the need for human assistance was eliminated. Even more amazing was that this kind of learned skill can be shared instantly with other robots, enabling exponential learning across the factory floor. 

Mobility was the focus of dozens of mobile robot platforms, each exhibiting various degrees of autonomy.

Omron highlighted its autonomous indoor vehicles that use advanced technology recently acquired from AdeptKUKA’s iiwa mobile robot features a sensory arm that detects contact immediately and reduce its level of force and speed instantly—and can even navigate autonomously and act in swarms. And Nabtesco and Harmonic Drive demonstrated highly engineered reduction gears that take rotational movement and robotic dexterity to a whole new level of performance.

Machine vision and augmented/virtual reality were in the spotlight.

Keyence premiered new 3D vision systems that are broadening the scope of robotic applications by refining the precision at which robots can pick, sort, and handle even the most delicate and fragile items. DENSO, which is better known for its automotive parts than its robots, demonstrated a multi-modal AI robot that can be controlled by humans with VR goggles and sensors. DENSO has made significant headway in robotics in recent years, especially in the electronics assembly market, with a series of small form factor robots.

Collaboration was the talk of the show.

A new generation of collaborative robots was on display, demonstrating how people and robots can work together safely. ABB previewed its newest collaborative robots—single-arm models that combine cutting-edge capabilities with a smaller footprint and higher payloads than its popular dual-arm industrial robot, YuMi. Of the multiple corporate collaborations that were announced, ABB and Kawasaki Robotics made headlines with the news of their partnership to develop collaborative robots and create common industry standards for robotics safety, programming, and communication.

These highlights were just the tip of the iceberg. Toyota’s T-HRC, a humanoid robot, performed “dabs” for an enthusiastic audience. Kuka AG’s LBR iiwa (a “Leichtbaurobotor” intelligent industrial work assistant) poured bottles of beer for attendees. There was a power-assisted suit from JTEKT that gave participants super-human strength, and “Miim,” a life-size humanoid robot that features 30 body motors and 8 facial expression motors, as well as speech recognition software to recognize speech patterns and even detect ambient sound. There was even a soft, robotic toy dog, “Hana-Chan,” that smells and reacts and behaves much like, you guessed it, a dog. From industrial to healthcare to entertainment—and everything in between—there was a robot to thrill and amaze anyone and everyone.

What is particularly refreshing about being in Japan (where I lived and worked for nearly seven years) is the pure excitement about robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence (RAAI). This is a country that is depending on this technological revolution to help solve many of its most critical concerns, including an aging population, decreasing workforce, and a need to produce enough goods and food to sustain its society far into the future. The Japanese people embrace RAAI technologies with vigor, and that energy is infectious. (It’s no wonder that 30% of the companies in the ROBO Global Robotics & Automation Index are headquartered in Japan and have continued to deliver some of the most stunning results. Learn more in the ROBO Global Q3 2017 Review.) 

Related: China's Push Toward Excellence Delivers a Global Robotics Investment Opportunity 

While we were at the show, we were fortunate to have formal and informal meetings with the CEOs and CFOs of more than a dozen companies of interest, each of which is leading a specific innovation that ROBO believes will serve as a core industry capability moving forward. I’ve known some of these leaders for years, and their companies already boast sizable market caps based on their established success. Others we spoke to are newer players that are in the early stages of growth, but that hold great promise for the future. Every discussion we had gave us greater insight into not only where these companies and the industry as a whole are today, but more importantly, what the future holds for them—and for us.

At ROBO Global, our goal is to ensure the ROBO Global Robotics & Automation Index is consistently aligned with the fast-changing robotics industry and provides diversified exposure to technology leaders across the entire supply chain—innovators large and small—who are positioned to fuel the tremendous growth to come. What was evident from every discussion, every demonstration, and everything we saw in Toyko last week was that robotics and AI is still in its infancy. The future of robotics will surely surprise us all, and our job at ROBO Global is to help investors capture the growth and returns opportunity presented by the robotics and AI revolution—both today and far into the future.

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