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These Are the Droids You’re Looking For

Glory Ltd.’s futuristic production line employs next-generation NEXTAGE humanoid robots that work in companionable conjunction with human employees to build complex currency-sorting machines.

“We have visitors from around the world coming to see the production line. We once had a team from a French corporation here, and they kept saying, ‘This is crazy!’ ” recalls Akio Tobita, general manager of Production Engineering Dept. 2 at Glory Ltd.’s Saitama plant, with a smile. For technicians and engineers, being called crazy is the ultimate compliment, suggesting that their skills and ideas have made the unthinkable a reality.

The Saitama site features several NEXTAGE humanoid robots created by Kawada Robotics Corporation. Human technicians surround the robots and work in tandem with them on a production line covering nearly 225 square meters, assembling the coin- and bill-sorting mechanisms in cash registers. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the plant in 2014 to observe its humanoid robots.

Glory began “robotizing” its plants twenty-four years ago. As Japanese firms sought to slash costs and moved their plants overseas, causing a hollowing-out of industry, Glory chose a different route to maintain both costs and product quality.
“Starting with the introduction of robots with multiple articulated joints, we began to develop internal expertise in producing automated production lines,” says Tobita proudly. They discovered Kawada’s NEXTAGE robot at the International Robot Exhibition in 2009, he notes, and realized “it was a perfect match for our own goals of automation.”

The company brought in one unit for a pilot project in 2011, and after numerous trial-and-error efforts with processes such as producing small components and making peripheral in-house equipment, succeeded in its implementation. Today there are around three hundred employees at the Saitama plant engaged in manufacturing, with nineteen robots assisting them. The NEXTAGE model was specifically designed to enable safe and symbiotic work between humans and robots. It only outputs 80 watts and can hold no more than about 1.5 kilograms per hand, yet NEXTAGE excels at determining positional data and assembling precision components.

“The robots can perform fine work like grasping, peeling and inserting,” Tobita says, “but humans perform the more abstract and flexible work. In this way, robots and humans work together performing in their more skilled area. Robots are slightly slower than humans in movement, but they make up for this with their ability to work without stopping from morning to midnight.”

The robots sometimes require minute adjustments and must be shut down briefly, which is when humans step in and reboot them. By pursuing stable quality as well as high-level uptime and ROI, Glory has arrived at a combination that makes the most of the logical functionality of robots and the flexibility of humans, creating a synergetic production line.

Glory’s signature product is a machine for sorting foreign currency used by financial institutions, so they humorously decided to use world currencies such as “euro” and “dollar” on the robots’ nametags. The robots can perform different tasks independently with each hand, and their surprisingly lifelike actions are endearing. “We were a bit shocked at first, but they grew on us,” staff onsite have commented. “Work is faster and easier now. They’re cute, too—when they build something they don’t feel sure about, they place it off to the side on the table, showing you they need help. They wait and watch the other robots to learn from them. It’s quite charming.”

Tobita notes that Japan’s working population is shrinking, so robots are a must. “Still, improving their design, operating them, and handling more abstract tasks remain the domain of humans,” he says. “Even as robots evolve, there are still many tasks that only humans can perform. As we move ahead, we want to use not only NEXTAGE but a range of robots to further automate the line to enhance our productivity.”