Many billions of dollars have been spent by Japan’s top companies in the last decade to develop the next generation of robots — famous for such technical marvels as expressing human emotions on a silicon face, bipedal walking, roller-skating, playing musical instruments, and cooking meals. Japanese companies such as Hitachi, Toyota, and Toshiba are broadcasting ads and posting billboards across the globe that show-off their latest robotic achievements. These products aren’t for sale. You cannot buy they for industrial or commercial use. But their existence suggests a fantastic future where robots will be serving us in all sorts of tasks, both menial and complex.
Too bad this is so utterly removed from reality. For all of Japan’s collective effort in developing its robotics industry, TEPCO has had to turn to iRobot, — a Massachusetts-based company — for the Packbot, a simple yet practical robot equipped with simple claws and cameras, to enter the Fukushima plants. The robot first entered the plants on Sunday (a month after the disaster, after it became clear that no Japanese robots were up for the task) taking measurements and photographs of areas where it was unsafe for humans to venture. (Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Japan has refused robots provided by the Chinese military.)
On that note, iRobot is also the company that brought us the Roomba, a robot that vacuums the floor and which is probably the most popular robot among Japanese consumers — showing that Japan Inc.’s investment in robot technology cannot save it, even in its home market. For all the fanfare in recent years, in truth, Japan’s robots are so advanced that they have skipped a generation of usefulness. The robotics on display by Japan Inc. may be useful in ten years, but they are nothing more than gimmicks today.
Coincidentally, just hours after I read the above article on TEPCO having to go to iRobot for robots to use in Fukushima, I was browsing through Michael E. Porter’s tome, The Competitive Advantage of Nations (which is just as heavy a book as it sounds). Published in 1990, one case study in the book addresses Japan’s robot industry, and I found this section prophetic:
The first robots used in Japan were imported from the United States in 1967. The Japanese robotics industry had its beginning in 1968, when Kawasaki Heavy Industries signed a licensing agreement with Unimation. Kawasaki was both a major potential user of robots as well as a producer of related products and services. It produced a broad range of machinery and parts, including engines, motorcycles, aircraft, machinery, complete plants, and ships. In 1969, Kawasaki began to sell Unimate robots, the first robots produced in Japan. Kobe Steel was also an early licensee of American robot designs.
The early Japanese robots produced results that were somewhat less than expected. They were often referred to as “expensive fools” and many were relegated to the corners of factories to collect dust. However, Japanese firms began to improve upon the robots they imported. Kawasaki redesigned some of the parts of the Unimation machines and upgraded its quality. In the late 1960s, the mean time between failures (MTBF) of an imported robot was less than 300 hours. By 1974, Kawasaki had achieved an MTBF of 800 hours. By 1975, this figure was 1,000 hours.
It’s a total cliche about Japanese business from the late 20th century: “Japan doesn’t invent things well, but they are great at improving things.” It’s a cliche so tired that it’s rarely rolled out much anymore. Yet as I read this, I realized that the observation from 1990 is still true, and is being echoed in real life events more than twenty years later.
Japan must get back to doing what it does best — improving, not inventing. If Japan’s researchers were tasked with improving the Roomba or the Packbot, I bet they’d do an amazing job. But left to their own devices, with the task of making something new, Japanese researchers, for whatever reason — dedicate themselves to creating a robot that can cook okonomiyaki and play the violin — and for what? Another generation of “expensive fools” destined to collect dust, due to the minor value the products provide in industrial and consumer markets.