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Robots worming their way into Japanese service sector

Tour company H.I.S. to launch advisory business

Robots greet guests at the Henn-na Hotel in the H.I.S. group's Huis Ten Bosch theme park.

TOKYO -- A growing number of service-sector businesses in Japan are opening up to the idea of using robots to cope with worker shortages and boost productivity, and major tour company H.I.S. has formed a unit to tap the developing trend.

The Tokyo-based company has established "hapi-robo st" as a subsidiary of Huis Ten Bosch, operator of the namesake theme park in Nagasaki Prefecture. Making the most of know-how accumulated at the semi-automated Henn-na Hotel, at the theme park, the new unit will advise both robot manufacturers and potential users looking to raise productivity via automation. The hotel has reduced its staff from about 30 to just eight by using robots at reception desks and as porters.

The new unit in Tokyo will test mainly service robots under development, offering feedback on how to improve them. It will also propose the use of robots to retailers, lodging establishments and other businesses facing personnel shortages.

Testing will take place at the Huis Ten Bosch theme park and elsewhere for now. For instance, automated robots might collect trash from sensor-monitored bins before they fill up. Robots may also carry supplies. An automated airport tourism desk to provide sightseeing information is another application that hapi-robo st is considering.

The new company plans to hire manufacturing-sector alumni from companies like Sharp. It will also partner with robotics researchers at Kyushu University to collaborate in development of control technologies and artificial intelligence. H.I.S. envisions developing its own robots down the road by cultivating such expertise.

Service robots are increasingly used at Japanese retailers. Aeon plans to roll out 400 autonomous cleaning robots at its shopping centers and elsewhere by fiscal 2018. Some Aeon group stores already use mobile inventory management robots that make the rounds of store aisles.

Electronics retailer Yamada Denki uses SoftBank Group's Pepper humanoid robot at some stores. At its Concept Labi Tokyo outside Tokyo Station, Pepper helps visitors with directions at the entrance.

Pepper is used in health care as well. Fukuda Denshi, which supplies electronics equipment to medical facilities, has developed an app enabling Pepper to handle patient intake.

General construction company Shimizu has developed a robot arm to carry heavy steel rebar. Work that used to take about seven people can now be done by a robot operator and two assistants.

The Japanese market for service robots is seen growing 13-fold from 2015 levels to about 4.9 trillion yen ($42.6 billion) in 2035, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. H.I.S.' new business could help accelerate the market's expansion.


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