Perhaps it comes from living in a country with extremely high population density, or perhaps from a cultural obsession with making things as tiny as possible, but whatever the reason, Japanese factory automation cells have always been much smaller and closely packed than their Western counterparts.
We first noticed this tendency while visiting major automobile factories here in the 1980’s. While a U.S. automaker would lay out a production assembly line with one robot per station, in a linear fashion, their Japanese counterparts would have two, three, four, or even five robots performing functions in the same space. It was truely amazing to see all those robots moving their arms at the same time, each performing some critical assemby, welding, or processing function to the car body. We had to wonder why they didn’t crash, or end up getting tangled with each other just like the key linkages on our old manual typewriter used to do right in the middle of typing a critical report.
At that time, over 25 years ago, we were supporting the introduction of a major US CAD/CAM developers suite of design tools and software systems. While the basic software system was a huge success and was quickly adopted by manufacturers and design companies here, the robotics module never really got off the ground.
Apparently there were several reasons why the US developed robot cell design software wasn’t popular. The first reason offered by manufacturers was, “Westerners don’t have a direct connection with robots and treat them like ‘things’, so you need software systems to design and program the robot cells. However, here we have a deep connection with our robots, understand them, and their capabilities, at a gut level. So, we don’t need robot cell design systems like you do.”
The first time we heard that logic, we automatically discounted it as an excuse to cut off any serious discussion abouth the strengths and weaknesses of our sales pitch. Later, after more than a decade of successful experience here under our belt, we started to realize that they weren’t just pulling our leg. There actually is a very different human/robot relationship, understanding, and interaction that takes place here compared to the US or Europe.
The second roadblock to acceptance of our robot cell system was the fact that the current version (at that time) couldn’t support enough robots and degrees of freedom, all operating in close proximity. Eventually we gave up efforts to promote the sytem, and focused on selling much of the core CAD/CAM systems
In any case, the Japanese focus on shrinking technology of all sorts, including robotics, continues even today. At IREX 2009, the biggest robot exhibition in the world, factory automation vendors were demonstrating new, improved, systems with smaller form factors and higher degrees of freedom than ever before.
The Mitsubishi Electric RV-2SQ robotic systems were an excellent example of this phenomenon at work: