It was a standard task for most logistics warehouse operators: meet turnaround standards for receiving, picking, packing and shipping as they manage their staff. These workers carry and move heavy objects, load and unload equipment and materials, pick and pack the correct products from the thousands handled by the warehouse, and ship them to designated destinations. People on logistics lines had been doing this for decades, as automating logistics was considered impossible due to difficulty robots had with handling diverse items. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, businesses have been urged to prioritize safety, having workers stay home to avoid infection, or maintain a safe distance as they worked. This threatened to bring logistics operations to a standstill, but Mujin was ready with a solution: a new type of controller, which enables logistics robots to not only perceive their surroundings and diverse items, but also how to handle them like a human.
Building Platforms that Support their Customers
“Japan understands the value of automation and the care for final quality. I love the passion here,” says Dr. Rosen Diankov, co-founder and CTO of Mujin. Traditional industry robots may be good at working in precisely set patterns but fail when presented with irregular tasks. Mujin, an intelligent robot controller provider, has set out to combine a robot’s tireless precision with a human’s ability to observe and understand their surroundings. “At the core of technology is a motion planning component that can perform incredibly complex computation, including handling a diverse array of items, in real-time, enabling the robot to reason about its surroundings and figure out what to do,” explains Diankov. Looking forward, the real advantage of Mujin’s software is to allow users or third parties to adapt the robots to handle complicated tasks. “Making use of its teachless technology, our goal is very simple,” says co-founder and CEO Takino Issei, “to automate the entire warehouse to handle a variety of tasks that previously couldn’t be automated, so that humans no longer need to engage in them.”
New companies aren’t the only ones shaping the future of logistics. Itoh Denki has been transforming itself from an industrial motor manufacturer into a platform service provider, having already become the world leader in the design and manufacture of motorized roller (PowerMoller®) conveyor systems. “Traditional conveyor systems were extremely complicated to design and assemble,” explains Itoh Tetsuya, the company’s third-generation president, “in fact, the lack of specialist engineers was a serious bottleneck. This is why we developed our new id-PAC conveyor platform to have a plug-and-play design, making it extremely easy to assemble.” Id-PAC is an innovative logistics automation platform that combines standardized conveyor modules controlled by intuitive software for conveyor transport control. This gives customers more flexibility in designing their intralogistics systems and allows them to quickly adapt to changing situations.
Labelling tags for inventory and material management are another enabler for streamlining logistics, but until now they could not be used in high-temperature environments. To answer this need, YS Tech has developed Heatproof, a new type of labelling system that allows inventory and products to be tracked even when heated to over 1000 degrees Celsius. The Heatproof labelling tags, which can be used even in steel mills, are so different to anything currently used in the industry that they are still not yet well known. CEO Takehisa Kenji explains, “traditionally, heat-processed materials such as metals and ceramics were marked with chalk, hammered stamps or other methods before being processing. This frequently led to inspection errors, creating delays and disrupting supply chains.” The one-of-a-kind heat resistant barcode labels are made possible by the combination of heat-activated adhesive and can withstand the intense temperatures in processing plants, allowing the inspection process to be completely automated. This has greatly improved reliability, reducing production and shipping times for their customers from five days down to two.
Understanding the Changes that are Shaping the World
The development of id-PAC represented a radical rethinking of Itoh Denki’s previous product line, but it was a move guided by understanding how Japan and the world were evolving, with many companies to look toward smart technologies for solutions to take over for human workers. “We had been looking into software solutions for some time, and when we saw what technological advances were now making possible, we decided our path” Itoh continues. “Our customers hadn’t been aware of the possibilities, but we understood the many challenges they faced. As a result, no other manufacturer has a system like ours available.”
Anticipating needs before customers are even aware of them is a trait shared by many small and medium enterprises in Japan. “Our customers weren’t aware that our Heatproof technology was even possible,” explains Takehisa. “There are many different methods of heat processing, so in R&D we need to envision a very wide range of possibilities. Right now, we are the only company in the world making these and the global potential looks unlimited.” In YS Tech’s case, they were also able to recognize the needs of their customers’ customers, as Japanese carmakers, masters of logistics management, were seeking out suppliers who could reliably track the supply chains of their steel and aluminum.
For Mujin, their inspiration came from the desire to step away from theoretical AI research and apply their knowledge to real-word problem. The company has shipped a number of controllers, which manage about a thousand of their robots, developing them based on the specific tasks requested from their customers. “Because we are pioneers in delivering full motion planning robot control system platform to logistics warehouses and supply-chain centers, probably the first in the world to do so, we attract highly-skilled engineers from around the world who are thrilled to tackle real-world problems,” Takino emphasizes.
Looking Ahead to Tomorrow
Japan is home to thousands of small- and medium-size companies, pushing the boundaries of technology to develop smart solutions for logistics and supply-chain management. One common element linking them together is their vision for a future in which technological innovations can be applied to solving social challenges. They combine an international outlook with insights gained from their own deep experience and their understanding of the needs of their customers. “Our passion is to always be developing, always exploring new possibilities for making things better,” says Itoh. “as new opportunities appear, we are always looking for ways to expand as a logistics platformer.”
Note: All Japanese names in this advertorial are given in the traditional format, with the family name preceding the given name.
To learn more about Mujin Inc., click here.
To learn more about Itoh Denki Co.,Ltd., click here.
To learn more about YStech Co.,Ltd., click here.