Japanese robot leaders play the long game in humanoid market

Chloe Liao, analysis; Willis Ke, DIGITIMES Asia 0

Credit: AFP

Humanoid robots are currently dominating discussions in the robot market, with manufacturers from the US and China at the forefront of this competition. Surprisingly, traditional Japanese robotics giants seem absent from this scene, and even the historically dominant "Big Four" robot manufacturers—Fanuc, ABB, Yaskawa, and Kuka—appear unusually quiet.

This has led the industry to question whether these companies are not optimistic about the development of humanoid robots or if other reasons are behind their passivity. Reports indicate that the Big Four robot manufacturers have explicitly or implicitly suggested they will not pursue the development of humanoid robots at this stage, choosing instead to focus on their core business of industrial robots. However, the phrase "at this stage" leaves much room for speculation.

Despite the significant strides made by Tesla, Figure AI, and China's YuShu Technology (Untree brand) in the humanoid robot market, it would be incorrect to say that Japanese robot manufacturers lack interest in this area. Honda and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, for instance, invested in the development of humanoid robots early on and continue to do so. Kawasaki's humanoid robot, Kaleido, is already in its eighth generation.

Although these companies are relatively low-profile compared to their US and Chinese counterparts, they may be waiting for a more opportune moment to enter the market.

The Collaborative Robot Example

The cautious approach of Japanese manufacturers is most evident in the development of collaborative robots (cobots). Denmark's Universal Robots (UR) launched the world's first cobot in 2008. Japanese manufacturers also introduced cobots to varying degrees in the past, but their market strategies suggest they were merely testing the waters. Judging from the impressive displays at the 2023 International Robot Exhibition (iREX) in Tokyo, industry insiders believe that 2024 will see a surge in Japanese companies entering the cobot market.

The cobot market has been developing for over a decade, but it seems the real era is just beginning for Japanese robot makers. Fanuc has repeatedly hinted that at least 10% of its future production capacity will be dedicated to manufacturing cobots.

A clear market trend is the increasingly blurred line between industrial and collaborative robots. In the past, cobots sacrificed speed and precision for safety, which posed a challenge for manufacturing industries prioritizing production efficiency. However, strategies from companies like Fanuc and Denso suggest a preference for combining collaborative and industrial robots by adjusting speed based on the robot's state.

Additionally, with major companies like Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Electric appointing management with backgrounds in robotics and a focus on innovation, it is evident that robotics will be a key area of development for these companies.

The Prudent Stance on Humanoid Robots

From the example of collaborative robots, it is clear that Japanese robot manufacturers take a prudent stance on new product development. They adopt a cautious approach, waiting for market demand to become clearer and for practical issues to be resolved before making significant investments.

Barry Lam, chairman of Quanta Computer, recently made remarks about humanoid robots that sparked considerable discussion. He bluntly noted that the cost-performance ratio of humanoid robots is low, wasting power and lacking practical commercial value, with the only advantage being that such robots don't get tired or go on strike.

Indeed, for factory automation, traditional six-axis robots combined with autonomous mobile robots (AMR) are already sufficient for most scenarios. Introducing humanoid robots could create more problems, indirectly highlighting that the true practical applications of humanoid robots are still unclear.

Industry experts familiar with robotics believe the development trajectory of humanoid robots might follow a similar pattern. With pioneers like Tesla and Figure AI leading the way, traditional robot giants may not need to venture into this still immature market at present.

For Japan, a major player in robotics with top-tier technology and a significant global presence, adopting a wait-and-see approach aligns with the cautious style typical of Japanese companies. Given their absolute advantage, carefully assessing the situation and observing developments may be the most prudent strategy.