In a warehouse in the city of Noda, Chiba Prefecture, a robot with wheels zips around to pick up boxes of goods and carries them to a shipping container. It’s Hitachi Ltd.’s vision for the future.
The Japanese maker of bullet trains and power stations on Tuesday unveiled a robot that can pick up products ranging from 500-milliliter plastic bottles to shoe boxes weighing around 1 kg.
Such robots would have the potential to replace some workers as companies begin turning to them for repetitive tasks such as collecting items from shelves in Amazon.com Inc. warehouses. These new machines would also extend the use of robots from fixed positions on factory floors, a common sight at automakers from Toyota Motor Corp. to General Motors Co.
“We plan to start using them in our own group companies in two to three years and selling them in around five years,” Toshio Moriya, a general manager at Hitachi’s technology innovation center, said in Noda on Tuesday. Companies could use anywhere up to 100 robots in a warehouse, he said.
Moriya declined to comment on pricing, except to say it would need to be competitive with current warehouse costs.
The Tokyo-based company is developing the robot’s software system, while Seiko Epson Corp. is making the hardware, according to Hitachi.
Picking up individual objects, while labor-intensive, is a task that remains better performed by humans. It’s a difficult job for robots, which use sensors to identify items that can be confused by packaging. Last year, Amazon hired 80,000 temporary workers for its more than 50 warehouses during the holiday shopping season to do similar tasks.
The number of industrial robots in use has risen to 1.6 million as of 2013 since General Motors first put one on an assembly line in 1961, according to the International Federation of Robotics.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is aiming for a 20-fold increase in the market for robots for use in the nonmanufacturing sector to ¥1.2 trillion (about $10 billion) in 2020 from the current level.
“The challenge for us is to miniaturize the robot while keeping it to a reasonable price,” said Nobutaka Kimura, a researcher at Hitachi. “We also need to enhance its safety.”