On the hunt for retail robots in Japan

One doesn’t have to visit Japan to see examples of robots in retail and manufacturing, but with the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) describing it as “the world’s predominant industrial robot manufacturer” it is a suitable place to start the search.

Essential Retail was invited to explore some of this technology in action as part of a trip organised by one of Japan’s longest-running technology businesses, Panasonic, in a week-long exploration taking in sites in Tokyo, Fukuoka and Osaka.

From farming field to the warehouse, to the retail store and in hospitality space, there was clear evidence of how Panasonic and its partners’ robotics capability is already having an impact on business, and how it might have greater effect in the future.

The context

Conversations about the deployment of more robots and artificial intelligence (AI) in retail are prevalent, with the British Retail Consortium acknowledging the three million strong UK retail workforce will reduce in the coming years, partly due to automation.

This year alone there have been multiple global examples of the emergence of robots in retail, to improve efficiency, alleviate the need for laborious manual processes, and to help digitise certain operations which, in turn, can aid data analysis. The meaning of the term robotics in a retail sense ranges from a Star Wars R2D2 droid-like creation to AI-powered systems, all neatly labelled under the umbrella term: robotics and AI (RAI). 

Starship Technologies’ launch of delivery robots in Milton Keynes on 31 October is a case in point, with residents able to choose for their online orders to be sent to a robot depot and delivered by a Henry Hoover-sized automated machine on wheels.

Starship's delivery robot
Starship's delivery robot

Over in North America, Walmart keeps extending its trial of Bossa Nova-built robots. The machines scan aisles for out-of-stock items and non-uniform shelf replenishment or labelling, before informing store staff about their findings.

In the Netherlands, Ahold Delhaize announced in November that it had partnered with Delft University of Technology to expand its Artificial Intelligence for Retail Lab, which will see researchers explore robotic solutions that might be applied throughout the retail supply chain, from warehouses and stores to customers.

Meanwhile in the same month, LG Electronics, Panasonic’s core competitor across the Sea of Japan in South Korea, agreed a deal with local retail chain E-mart to develop a new type of service robot to assist shoppers at supermarkets and reportedly free them from having to push their trolleys around the aisles.

It is against this backdrop that Panasonic opened up its robotic technology for scrutiny.

Robot wars in Japan

The retail IT community might be familiar with Pepper the humanoid robot, as several global technology vendors have forged partnerships with its parent company, Softbank, resulting in uses ranging from taking food orders to general customer service.

Panasonic has a humanoid robot of its own, Hospi, which is currently deployed in around 15 Japanese hospitals to help carry and deliver medical equipment around sites, autonomously. Earlier this year, the robot’s versatility was showcased when it appeared at Tokyo Narita Airport in the form of mobile digital signage.

Equipped with three display screens on its ‘body’, Hospi can navigate itself through designated areas, detect people and objects, and autonomously reduce speed, stop, and avoid obstacles – its ‘face’ even turns sad when someone is in its way. The initial airport experiment explored its potential to communicate information about items not allowed on board and as an advertising medium, but it could clearly be used elsewhere.

Kota Kato, an engineer from the Robot Business Section within Panasonic’s Robotics Business Promotion Department, says: “The application for Hospi could be used in shopping malls and for general advertising.

“It is built on proprietary technology from Panasonic, and there have been enquiries from different companies across various industries. Its offer of transportation and display is a powerful combination.”

When asked how it compares to Pepper, which is also the robotic child of a major Japanese technology company in Softbank, Kato notes: “Pepper is good at communication with humans, but Hospi has actual practical use.”

With Japan’s lawmakers enacting controversial legislation in June that legalises gambling in the country and paves the way for casino resort development, Panasonic is eyeing opportunities for Hospi in this new environment. Multiple Japanese and international casino operators have voiced an interest in investment in Japan following the change in law, opening up a new target market for technology makers in the hospitality space.

Robots in the field

Panasonic is also developing an AI-powered robot aimed at helping farmers.

A labour shortage in Japanese farming led to an idea in Panasonic towers to develop a tomato harvesting robot, which now in its third iteration combines sensing, imaging, and AI technology to automatically pick tomatoes from greenhouse-based vines. At present, it’s at a rate of one every ten seconds, and the company acknowledges more work is required to ensure the cost of harvesting by robot is lower than the cost of labour, but Panasonic has “high hopes for this technology”.

The aim is to reach around 300 tomatoes picked every minute, with the Netherlands’ farming industry viewed as a potential target market for this technology when it is fully developed.

The different robotics features on the machine are described as its brain, eyes, hands and feet, but unlike a human “a robot can keep working without complaining”, says Ryo Toshima, manager of Robotics Promotion Centre, which is part of the Manufacturing Innovation division at Panasonic. Some might wait until their robot works effectively in the rain before making such a claim but, nevertheless, Toshima’s bold statement highlights the potential benefits of using machine over man for such physical work.

And giving an indication of future robot intelligence, Toshima adds: “We haven’t put any function in for the robot to realise if it is a success or failure – its function is to pick.

“Of course, for the future we would like to give it that function. It will need to know how much it has harvested.”

Clearly still in embryonic stages (the embedded tweet, above, is an example of an older version of the technology in action), the fruit/vegetable-picking robot could expand to help farmers harvest cucumbers, peppers and aubergines, according to Toshima, but there is work to be done to further enhance and then commercialise the equipment.

That is the role of the Panasonic Robotics Hub in Osaka, which is looking to amalgamate the different innovation projects going on within Panasonic, while also sourcing external talent via link-ups with local universities and institutions.

Automation in factories and warehouses

Examples of Panasonic robotics and sophisticated technological systems already in use can be found in its warehouses and factories around Japan.

Essential Retail’s tour took in Panasonic’s Connected Solutions Company ‘smart’ factory in Tosu, Saga, near Fukuoka, where the company’s point of sale hardware and surveillance cameras are among the items manufactured. The trip then moved on to Saito, close to Osaka, and a Panasonic service parts warehouse which has recently been revamped with new technology and processes in the name of efficiency.

In Tosu, which is also the home city of Softbank CEO and local celebrity Masayoshi Son, a range of low-cost automation is used by Panasonic to “improve productivity”. There are also heat mapping systems to monitor staff movements – the analysis of which then helps the company identify problems and delays and amend procedures accordingly.

Meanwhile, at Saito, a robotic picking system supplied by Norwegian company Autostore – reminiscent of a scaled down UK Ocado fulfilment centre which also uses similar technology – helps staff get products ready for fulfilment. Alongside this functionality, the warehouse relies on robotic process automation, RFID tags, and scanning tools to speed up its operations and improve product and inventory visibility.

Panasonic is clearly proud of the time-saving and visibility gains achieved from introducing this tech, but other companies, such as Amazon in the US, Ocado in the UK, and fellow Japanese behemoth Uniqlo, go further with warehouse automation. The factory manager at Saito believes not going fully automated reduces business risks.

“The environment is always changing,” he explains, adding that the service parts Panasonic handles might change over time.

“When we face change, man and human are quicker to respond. Machine has to wait until it’s fixed.

This last point somewhat underlines a core Panasonic philosophy, which was repeated time and again by company representatives on the trip. It follows the Japanese concept of “Gemba Kaizen”, which is the idea of continuous improvement designed for enhancing processes and ultimately improving staff wellbeing.

So, despite all the technology implementations and ongoing robot development, Panasonic’s leaders believe they are doing this in the name of improving society.

Robotics: what’s in store?

Japan is the home of the Robot Restaurant, a live cabaret-style, robot-influenced dining and entertainment experience in Tokyo’s Shinjuku nightlife district, and Henn-na Hotel in Ginza, ‘the robot hotel’, where android check-in staff meet visitors.

There’s no denying it’s a nation that has a closer relationship with robotics than most, and Panasonic is playing its part in developing its own systems.

At the retail coalface, through separate pilots with the Lawson convenience chain and Trial supermarket, some of Panasonic’s technology is being used to support more automation in the checkout process. This is not robots in the droid sense, but more a case of AI that links with other technologies to drive new ways of operating stores.

Whether in customer-facing retail and hospitality or at some point down the supply chain, RAI is increasingly prevalent – and Japan is one of the countries at the forefront of its implementation, based on both IFR statistics and evidence from this trip.