Robot development takes a homeward turn

Entrepreneur Hisashi Taniguchi, founder of robotics firm ZMP, thinks man and machine are destined to live together


While Japanese robotics companies have made robots that look and move like human beings, the goal of making a society where human beings and robots interact in everyday life has remained out of reach.

Hisashi Taniguchi, a 44-year-old robotics engineer, wondered why humanoid robots could not be turned into a hugely profitable business.

Honda Motor Co.’s spacemanlike robot Asimo and Sony Corp.’s robotic dog Aibo caused a buzz in the industry, but Sony pulled out of the robotics business in 2006 over concerns about profitability.

“Humanoid robots are a generation away from entering the average household and working for human beings. . . . After working for seven years in the field, I’ve started to see the direction we should go in for robot development,” said Taniguchi, founder and chief executive officer of Tokyo-based robotics company ZMP Inc.

ZMP sold the world’s first humanoid robot for the consumer market, but unlike its rivals, it is now focusing on creating affordable robots for average households.

The company, which has 18 employees, released the rolling audio player miuro last year.

Believing robot technology for home application is the key to success, miuro is more of a consumer appliance than a humanoid robot.

Miuro, which looks like a rolling white ball caught between two halves of an egg, wheels about while playing music from an Apple iPod.

The company sold 500 units through a trading firm to test customer reaction.

“Consumers loved it,” Taniguchi said. “I saw potential from sales of miuro. This is just one step for us to apply our robotics technology to consumer electronics.

“I thought it could be fun if a music machine follows people.”

Since its establishment in 2001, ZMP has manufactured and sold entertainment robots including the two-legged humanoid robot nuvo as well as the miuro. The company is also engaged in an education business that provides instructional materials on robots for universities and research institutions.

After the first three years, ZMP fell into the red as the company invested heavily in research and development. But ZMP is finally expected to turn a profit this fiscal year ending Dec. 31, Taniguchi said. Sales in the current business year will also hit a record high of ¥300 million, he added.

ZMP said a new version of the miuro will hit store shelves in the latter half of next year.

Though the company declined to disclose such details as price and functions, the price is expected to be less than the original miuro’s ¥100,000, as the company wants to sell to as many people as possible throughout the world.

The new miuro will be available in Japan, the United States and European countries, the company said.

Taniguchi said the new miuro will enable people to operate the device by touching it, instead of using a remote control like the old version.

“What we have as an image right now is when you pat the new miuro, you can adjust the volume. When you stroke and lift it, you can select music, just like the user interface of Apple’s iPod and iPhone,” he said, adding that such user interfaces are the trend now.

Currently, the market is mainly supported by industrial robots, but Taniguchi believes the market for home health care, particularly among the elderly, will grow as society ages.

The Japan Robot Association, an industry body, says the robot market stood at ¥798.8 billion in 2005, with more than 80 percent stemming from industrial robots.

However, the association predicts the market will increase 66 percent to ¥1.32 trillion as robots for medical surgery support, rehabilitation and nursing, healing, and airport guides are expected to play a big role by 2010. The figure will rise more than 10-fold to ¥9.63 trillion in 2030 compared with the 2005 level, it predicts.

Taniguchi, who has worked as an engineer for an automobile-parts company, a sales rep at a trading firm and a dot-com entrepreneur, is counting on Japan’s robots to survive the intensifying global competition. Japan has been the undisputed leader in robotics technology, though South Korea is beefing up its robot industry.

“I thought robotics technology has been a strength of Japanese manufacturers, as it’s a combination of precision materials, sensors and motors. My whole career has led me to decide to establish ZMP,” Taniguchi said. “The Internet-related business, which I was involved in before, was just mocking the U.S.-born business model. It made me feel hollow.”

In 2005, ZMP developed the two-legged robot nuvo that walks, stands and dances. Taniguchi said the nuvo was popular among the elderly, retired engineers and dot-com entrepreneurs who love high-tech gadgets.

It was priced at about ¥600,000 and sold 100 units in the first year.

“Some even snapped up two robots. The robot is something engineers have dreamed of making in the future,” Taniguchi said.

ZMP is also trying to nurture next-generation engineers.

For engineering students and engineers who want to improve their skills, the company in 2004 started to sell e-nuvo robotics materials to engineering schools as teaching materials.

Through e-nuvo, students can learn fundamental engineering skills by building a robot.

In 2007, ZMP, Future Robotech Institutes, a robotics educational entity, and Pasona Tech Inc., which specializes in dispatching engineers to companies, jointly established Robotest Inc., which offers learning materials for engineers and engineering students.

The company plans to conduct tests on robot technology to measure engineers’ skills beginning in 2009.

“We hope to offer the tests in English and Chinese someday,” Taniguchi said.

His passion may help reverse the current situation in Japan where many students have lost interest in science and engineering and tend to choose better-paying fields, like finance and consultancy.

“I want to nurture more engineers,” he said. “Each country has its competitive industry. The U.S. excels at software development and Japan is good at precision materials. My goal is that each person brings his or her expertise into joint development for products.”

In this occasional series, we interview entrepreneurs whose spirits may hold the key to a more competitive Japan.

Highlights of Taniguchi’s career

2001 — Establishes ZMP Inc. after working as an engineer at an auto-parts company, a sales rep at a trading firm and a dot-com entrepreneur.

2004 — Starts robotics educational business by selling e-nuvo robot materials.

2005 — Begins selling two-legged robot nuvo.

2007 — Starts selling rolling music player miuro.

2007 — Sets up Robotest Inc., which offers educational materials and tests that measure people’s skills in robotics engineering to nurture future robotics engineers.

2008 — Opens a robotics school for people who want to learn the basics of robotics technology.

2009 — Plans to release a new version of the miuro in Japan, the United States and Europe.