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The Lure of Success

A new, fully automated squid-fishing device uses computer control technology designed for industrial robots to faithfully replicate the maneuvers employed by expert fishermen. Customizable for ease of use and requiring less power to operate, the device is finding fans both in Japan and overseas.

The sight of fishermen out trolling for squid is symbolic of winter in Japan. That scene is changing, however, as fully computer-controlled squid-fishing robots take to the seas. Sanmei Electronics Co., Ltd. holds half of the global share for these devices, and the company’s Saburo Hagiwara and Toshikazu Shiokawa sat down to explain why.

Sanmei specializes in technology for oscillating motors, and began developing and tweaking squid-fishing equipment in 1974. The fully automated SX model, the ninth iteration in the series, is now sold in Japan and overseas. Sanmei applied the positional control technologies used in factory robots, which involve automatic controllers based on servo mechanisms, to the SX squid-fishing device.

“For environmental reasons, fishing for squid with nets is prohibited,” Hagiwara says. “Before the development of automatic control systems, they used to attach large reels to a handle and then manually reel the catch in, which required a huge amount of work. Someone had to man each reel, too, so the personnel costs were staggering. Since we deliver motor-based products to numerous firms, we had ongoing relationships with the fishing industry at the Port of Shimizu. We learned about the travails of fishing, the increasing age of the fishermen, and the lack of new candidates to fill their shoes. They also wanted to automate the process with minimal power consumption. We figured that we could solve all of these issues in one fell swoop with fully automated fishing devices.”

The decks of fishing boats are arrayed with squid-fishing machines equipped with reel drums. These are linked to wires leading into the water that have twenty needle-shaped lures. Traditionally, fishermen would tug on the wire to shake the lures in the water and simulate the movements of creatures such as small fish and shrimp. Attracted by a light shined from the boat, the squid would congregate nearby and then catch sight of the moving lures, seeing them as real prey.

To simulate this jerking motion, conventional automated systems used rhombus-shaped reel drums to create irregular motion in the wires. However, just repeating the jerking motion didn’t actually entice the squid into going for the lures. The system was also inefficient, as it took a great deal of time to unwind the wires, and it was easy for equipment such as the wires or lures to become damaged. A round reel drum was introduced to achieve more stable unwinding and retrieval of the wire, as well as greater durability by reducing stress on the equipment.

In addition, the SX achieves the same maneuverability factory robots have when they determine the position of a component and stop at an irregular interval. This movement is used to jiggle the squid lure in a believable fashion just as the fishermen do, while also eliminating the inefficiencies earlier equipment presented.

“Each fisherman has a different method of manipulating the lure,” Hagiwara says. “Faithfully replicating those variations required us to board the ships and program the fishermen’s movements. While incorporating an advanced computer control system into a fishing device for squid and loading it aboard a ship might add a layer of complexity, the control panel can be customized to each fisherman’s specifications, so there have been no issues. In fact, we have fishermen between seventy and eighty years old—a demographic considered less than adept at operating computerized devices—using the SX with ease,” he adds with a smile.

“The domestic market for squid fishing was small to begin with, and now it is shrinking even more, along with the fisheries industry as a whole,” Shiokawa explains. “While imports of flash-frozen squid are on the rise, I don’t think the Japanese palate for fresh, raw squid is going to go away anytime soon, although that market has neared its peak. However, it’s a definite plus that orders from China, Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere are increasing, and we are proud to see that our technology is being recognized globally.” The company also hopes that, since demand for tuna in China and throughout Asia is also trending upward, securing squid—which serve as bait for tuna—should remain a key driver of demand for its machinery.

Achieving both an unflagging commitment to technical innovation and user-friendly considerations in one package is Sanmei’s strength, with its computer control technologies in wide use in various industries a testament to that ingenuity.