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Robot-friendly workplaces: Japan sees shared rules paving path

Public-private project looks to expand technology beyond manufacturing

An autonomous robot disinfects a handrail in Tokyo's Takanawa Gateway Station. (Photo by Shohei Nomoto)

TOKYO -- Nearly two dozen major Japanese companies will join an effort to help workplaces more easily accommodate robots, in hopes of improving productivity and relieving chronic labor shortages in such areas as retail and logistics.

The public-private Robot Revolution & Industrial IoT Initiative, coordinated by Japan's industry ministry, will test ways to create robot-friendly environments, such as changing the shapes of objects to make them easier to grab and setting common telecommunications standards. Trials will start as early as September.

Aeon, Japan's largest retailer, and convenience store giant Seven & i Holdings are expected to join the project, along with such names as Panasonic, East Japan Railway, Kewpie and Mitsubishi Estate.

Adoption of robots in corporate Japan has largely been confined to the manufacturing sector, with fields such as retail lagging behind. But robots could be used in these settings to stock shelves, arrange food in containers at production facilities, and give directions.

Retailers will build a shared database of product images that will enable robots to identify products across different settings. Supermarket operators and Japan's three big convenience store chains -- 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart -- plan to participate.

In Japan, specifications and other standards tend to be inconsistent as robots are often specially designed to match a user's preference. Robots tasked to operate elevators reportedly have differing communication standards depending on the company.

Optimum specifications and standards will be determined for robots, with the results put to use in creating standards geared toward a welcoming operational environment.

These efforts will also lead to the development of off-the-shelf robots that can be mass-produced at lower prices. This would help robots attain wider penetration in stores and public facilities.

Beijing's Made in China 2025 initiative to modernize industry designates robotics with sophisticated digital controls as a key field. In Western countries, the debate on creating robot-friendly environments has only begun. If Japan successfully pioneers such standards, it could lead to the expanded export of robots and related infrastructure.

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