Tokyo: A mechanical arm that picks 120 items a minute from a conveyor belt won Japan’s Robot of the Year award on 20 December, defeating a dozen other flashier finalists, including a walking humanoid, a firefighter robot and a transparent torso for simulating surgery.
The Japanese government prize, announced at a ceremony at a Tokyo hall, is the latest effort in this nation’s aggressive campaign to trumpet its robotics technology as the road to growth.
But the message was clear that utility and business, rather than entertainment or academia, are at the forefront of Japan’s new robotic push.
The entries in government-sponsored contest ranged from the educational Mindstorms robot software and robot parts from the Danish toy-maker Lego Group to an industrial robot from Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. that resembled a container-on-wheels that could lug 200 kilogram (440 pound) of pharmaceutical goods. Fuji Heavy makes Subaru brand cars.
But the three assembly-line mechanical arms from Fanuc Ltd., this year’s winner, were distinguished for their practicality at food and pharmaceutical plants.
Swiveling in an almost manic frenzy, the arms quickly but accurately analyzed camera data of little square pieces scattered randomly on a swiftly moving conveyor belt. The arms picked up the items, using suction cups that blew air in and out at their tips. They then worked together to neatly place them in rows in boxes.
Ryo Nihei, a Fanuc manager, said the robots are important for food and medicine companies, where sanitation is critical and human error must be avoided.
Concerns about food safety have been growing in Japan following a spate of scandals involving makers using old or cheaper ingredients, and falsely labeling products to mislead consumers.
The Fanuc robots have no exposed wiring for easy washing and sanitizing, Nihei said. They also work tirelessly for 24 hours straight. And they don’t misbehave.
“The trend these days is to try to avoid having human workers at all. People can get dirty and introduce unwanted objects,” he said.