October 19, 2021

Japanese AI robots and the US union’s last hurray

“I am a trade unionist,” US President Joe Biden told an audience at the Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. On March 31.

“I support the unions. The unions have built the middle class. It is time for them to start taking part in the action.

Against the backdrop of extreme inequality in the United States, that’s a welcome sentiment – but tech and business trends don’t go in Biden’s direction.

US President Joe Biden speaks in Pittsburgh, Pa. On March 31, 2021. The US economy regained 916,000 jobs in March, the largest increase since August, with nearly a third of the increase in the hard hit leisure and hospitality sector, the Labor Department reported on April 2, 2021. Photo: AFP / Jim Watson

On April 8, Japanese industrial conglomerate Hitachi Ltd announced that it had bought 96% of the shares of Kyoto Robotics, a designer and producer of three-dimensional machine vision and AI (artificial intelligence) robot control systems.

Kyoto Robotics’ mission statement reads: “We believe that a day will come when all manual labor in factories and warehouses can be completely replaced by automation using intelligent robots. “

Founded in 2000, Kyoto Robotics specializes in 3D vision sensors, motion planning, robot arm and tool control, and machine learning. Its technology originated from research projects at Ritsumeikan University, a private university in Kyoto well known for science and engineering.

CEO Gang Xu was previously a professor of computer science at Ritsumeikan, president of the Chinese Academy of Science and Engineering in Japan, and a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo, Harvard Robotics Lab, Motorola Australian Research Center and Microsoft Research China.

With around 60% of the Japanese market, Kyoto Robotics is a world leader in 3D vision for bin picking (pick & place) handling robots.

Its 3D vision sensors are compatible with industrial robots manufactured by Yasukawa Electric, FANUC, Denso (manufacturer of auto parts for the Toyota group), Nachi-Fujikoshi, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Electric, Universal Robots of Denmark (owned by Teradyne des USA) and Swiss-Swedish robot manufacturer ABB.

End users include Toyota Motor and other Toyota group companies, Hitachi group companies, Panasonic, bearing manufacturers NSK and NTN, Nippon Steel, global customers of the aforementioned robot manufacturers and the Japan National Institute of Science. and advanced industrial technologies.

According to the press release, the Hitachi group will now be “able to provide a unique and rapid robotic IS [system integration] for entire automated lines in logistics and AM [factory automation]. “

A logo of Japanese high-tech giant Hitachi at an exhibition in Tokyo on October 29, 2013. Photo: AFP / Yoshikazu Tsuno

Hitachi Ltd is a multinational corporation with estimated sales of 8.3 trillion yen (US $ 75 billion) through March 2021. With sales offices in dozens of countries, it will be able to to expand Kyoto Robotics’ technology around the world.

This should have a significant long-term impact on manufacturing. As explained on the Kyoto Robotics website:

A robot with vision and intelligence is capable of performing two types of automation: the supply, assembly and processing of parts inside a factory, and the sorting and transport of goods to the site. inside a distribution warehouse …

The “eyes” of an industrial robot should allow it to perform object recognition and pose estimation in three dimensions. This problem can be defined as a search problem in a six-dimensional space. [X, Y, Z coordinates and α, β, γ rotational angles]. This problem has remained difficult for over 30 years because of its complexity. A typical application would require searching among a trillion points in the search space. In addition, the “brain” of an industrial robot should allow it to intelligently control its movements based on what it sees.

After more than 20 years of R&D and delivery of over 400 systems, the object recognition accuracy of Kyoto Robotics 3D vision sensors in practical operation has been calculated to be over 99.99%.

Kyoto Robotics has many competitors including Omron, Keyence, Canon and Mujin (Japan), Solomon (Taiwan), Cognex (USA), Stemmer (Germany), Photoneo (Slovakia), Gideon Brothers (Croatia), Zivid (Norway) and Scape Technologies (Denmark).

According to Scape:

Almost 40% of manual labor physically transfers parts from bins to machines. However, a large part of the working time is spent on tedious, repetitive and arduous tasks that are still poorly automated today. An example of such a process, which is very complicated to automate, is bin-picking.

Ordinary robots cannot handle the randomly scattered parts in a bin / box. Most can’t even handle semi-structured parts stacked on a pallet or in a bin / box. What if an operator could just drop the parts into the trash and the robot would know what to do next?

This is what Scape, Kyoto Robotics and other companies offer.

Items in a factory bin from which a Kyoto Robotics robot with 3D vision can pick and place. Photo: Kyoto Robotics

On April 9, Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama voted against forming a union by a 2.4 to 1.0 margin. This was big news in the context of President Biden’s remarks, but with Amazon paying a minimum of $ 15.00 an hour compared to the state’s minimum wage of $ 7.25, which is not particularly surprising.

According to an April 10 Wall Street Journal article, “Pro-union workers have said they want more voice over break times, how they are monitored by the company, and how fast they are supposed to be. sort and move packages.

A fully automated warehouse, of course, wouldn’t require downtime, complain about being watched or the speed of the workflow. Robots also don’t need healthcare or retirement packages.

On April 11, the Wall Street Journal reported that its own analysis showed that despite the economic downturn, high unemployment and widespread suffering caused by Covid-19, CEOs of 206 of the 322 of the largest publicly traded companies in America received salary increases in 2020 The median increase was almost 15%.

The average compensation of the 322 CEOs rose 7% to $ 13.7 million, or 175 times the median U.S. household income of $ 78,500 calculated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Obviously, CEOs are not planning to give employees a greater “share of the share”.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos after receiving the 2019 International Federation of Astronautics Industry Excellence Award at the 70th International Astronautical Congress at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, on October 22, 2019. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

According to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute published in May 2019, “the share of labor in national income – that is, the amount of GDP paid out in wages, salaries and benefits – has been declining since the 1980s in a a number of countries, including the United States.

But despite the seemingly limitless greed of U.S. CEOs, there are signs that this trend is starting to reverse. President Biden’s advocacy for a higher corporate tax rate and a national minimum wage of $ 15, as well as investor resistance to uncontrolled executive compensation, points in this direction.

On the other hand, the survival of the traditional American unions – whose adversarial relationship with management contributed to the decline of the American manufacturing industry – seems very much in doubt.

Scott Foster is an analyst at Lightstream Research, Tokyo.


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