The NY Times are reporting that the manufacturing robots industry in Japan is being hit hard due to the recession. No need to comment on the robot industry in America, of course, since it’s pretty much non-existent.
Japanese industrial production has plummeted almost 40 percent and with it, the demand for robots.
At the same time, the future is looking less bright. Tighter finances are injecting a dose of reality into some of Japan’s more fantastic projects — like pet robots and cyborg receptionists — that could cramp innovation long after the economy recovers.
Kenji Hara, an analyst at the research and marketing firm Seed Planning, says many of Japan’s robotics projects tend to be too far-fetched, concentrating on humanoids and other leaps of the imagination that cannot be readily brought to market.
“Japanese scientists grew up watching robot cartoons, so they all want to make two-legged companions,” Mr. Hara said. “But are they realistic? Do consumers really want home-helper robots?”
Robot Factory, once a mecca for robot fans in the western city of Osaka, closed in April after a plunge in sales. “In the end,” said Yoshitomo Mukai, whose store, Jungle, took over some of Robot Factory’s old stock, “robots are still expensive, and don’t really do much.”
While this news may be true for industrial robots, and expensive toys like the Pleo, it’s not all bad news. The NY Times failed to mention that Toyota just outlined the next 5 years for their Partner Robot program last month, which we reported on earlier.
NEDO (New Energy & Development Organization), which previously pumped millions into the development of many of the robots seen at the 2005 Aichi Expo (and indeed those being added to this blog), have shifted their funding to medical / rehabilitation robots. Tokyo University’s IRT Research Institute is working with Toyota, along with a dozen other companies to develop robots for this sector.
Unrelated to Japan but certainly an important note on future research, America’s NSF (National Science Foundation) also recently awarded $5 million to the research and development of humanoid robots in a large multidisciplinary, international effort involving KAIST’s latest version of their famous HUBO robot and several US universities, as we reported earlier.
The president of Speecys recently held an event in Japan where he outlined some of his company’s new robot’s features, and presented an interesting slide which showed the declining costs of their technology from 780,000 JPY ($8,262 USD) for their earliest model down to 300,000 JPY ($3,177 USD) for their more recent SPC-101. Early next year, Speecys and SEGA plan to introduce a new bipedal entertainment robot with internet connectivity that can fetch your emails, information from Wikipedia, etc., in the range of $200-$500 USD.
And as for Kenji Hara’s question, “Do consumers really want home-helper robots?” I think the answer is, “Yes, but it must be affordable and perform as advertised”. One can only imagine the feeding frenzy that will take place in Japan when Honda finally marches ASIMO to market, which will no doubt sell out almost immediately even if it costs an arm and a leg. While manufacturing may be down, it appears that the ever-elusive home and health care robots we’ve been promised for years are getting the bulk of the research grants, which means cool robots will be around for the foreseeable future. The best is yet to come.