JIN-304 -- Robots for Babies: Toyota at the Leading Edge

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Issue No. 304
Friday January 14, 2005 TOKYO

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Robots for Babies: Toyota at the Leading Edge

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@@ VIEWPOINT: Robots for Babies: Toyota at the Leading Edge

In the film "I, Robot" the android is man's best friend,
his right hand, his helpmate. All is well in this futuristic
world where humanoids and humans mingle as easily as races in a
cosmopolitan city -- until a robot with imperial ambitions
engineers a rising with the goal of world domination.

I recalled the film when I learned of Toyota Motor's plans
for the introduction of super robots.

With the birthrate in Japan not yet bottoming out, foreboding a
serious shortage of factory workers in the future, Toyota has
turned toward fomenting a production innovation stressing the
harmony of man and robot rather than the reduction of manpower.

Toyota is deploying at all 12 of its domestic plants
robots capable of performing several simultaneous operations.
It aims to be the first automaker to introduce robots that, in
addition to machine work and engine assembly, perform the finishing
touches on the assembly line.

Toyota will jointly develop the new robot with Yasukawa Denki. The
robot is known, in Japanese parlance, as a "kokino robotto"
(advanced robot). Capable of different degrees of strength and
equipped with multiple joints and two arms, a motor for musculature,
and sensors for eyes, this super robot can perform such delicate
tasks as inserting minute parts and tightening screws -- things
heretofore done by flesh-and-blood workers. Unlike the standard
one-arm robot, the two-armed steel-collar worker is as labor
efficient as a human, if not more efficient.

Several dozen of the new robots have already been introduced to the
parts mass production line at the Motomachi Plant (Toyota City,
Aichi Prefecture), which manufactures the Crown, among other models.
They carry parts to metal-cutting machine tools and deliver them to
the assembly point. The automaker not only plans to introduce the
new robot to all of its domestic plants but also is encouraging its
adoption by group businesses and overseas plants.

In the automobile industry robots mainly perform relatively dangerous
tasks such as welding and coating, while, in order to preserve quality,
human workers accomplish such complicated final processes as attaching
interior trim.

But Toyota plans to introduce robots to final assembly processes after
establishing the necessary control technology and safeguards, and
developing parts easily assembled by android hands.

Even this super robot will not result in the total replacement of man
by machine; rather it will reinforce the strengths of the production
line and compensate for manpower shortages in a truly Toyota-style
production innovation.

The company plans to use robots to keep production costs at the level of
those in China, just as Canon, in response to lower production costs
there, is proceeding with the full automation of its production lines.

Toyota presently uses between 3,000 and 4,000 standard robots. It
expects a total of 1,000 super robots to join them.

On January 1 the automaker established a robot division tasked with
R&D. The Partner Robot Development Division, as it is called, also aims
to develop robots to assist in nursing care by, for example, helping
seniors out of bed and into the bath.

Why is Toyota entering a field so removed from auto manufacturing? Quite
simply the company anticipates applying the technology accumulated at
the human-robot interface to robots on the factory floor. In other
words, the technology derived from the development of "partner robots"
can be parlayed into the development of mechanical coworkers of humans.

Toyota's strategy for super steel-collar workers and humanoid
home-helpers is interesting in that it represents the leading edge of
a Japanese response to low fertility -- a response even bandied about
in the upper echelons of the government here. Taken to an extreme,
this strategy would preempt movies of the "I, Robot" genre, for the
android Claudius would not need to acquire an empire through revolution;
he would need but wait.

-- Burritt Sabin

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Written and edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)


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