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Private-public initiative looks to boost Japan's robot staff uptake with standardized shops

A robot is seen patrolling the shelves at night after closing time at the Kasumi Food Square Olinus Kinshicho supermarket in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, in this image provided by Kasumi Co.

TOKYO -- Robots are starting to take the place of human workers at supermarkets and convenience stores, but while it's hoped their introduction will be labor saving, the high cost of order-made ones is putting a limit on their wider uptake.

    In response to the issue, rival companies, along with a government body, have come together to start a public-private initiative to standardize specifications for robots. The term shared among them for the project is "robot work-style reforms." But what does this mean? The Mainichi Shimbun went to find out more.

    "Please leave it up to me. Thank you for your work today," said a robot starting its nighttime shift after the Kasumi Food Square Olinus Kinshicho supermarket in the capital's Sumida Ward had closed. The robot, unattended to by humans, then patrolled the shop operated by Kasumi Co. -- a group company of major supermarket operator Aeon Co. -- based in the east Japan city of Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.

    While using its sensors to avoid bumping into objects, the robot shines a light on the shelves of products and films them with a camera. It then uses artificial intelligence (AI) to confirm which parts of the store's shelves are empty from selling out products, among other observations. The robot later sends the results of its analysis to a tablet computer, enabling staff coming in the next morning to quickly replenish stocks.

    Kasumi began trials with shift-replacement robots in 2018, and is currently going through a number of improvement works to roll them out officially. The firm's representative outlined the project's aim, saying, "If we can hand over a part of the work to robots, shop staff will be able to focus their efforts on customer care, and it could lead to an improvement in service."

    The robot, which stolidly moves about the empty store before returning to its specified point at the end of its shift and charging itself, is treated with fondness by its human colleagues. Though the space where its kept says its name is "check robot," it's reportedly come to be known affectionately as "Chiro" by staff.

    But there are still very few robots like Chiro serving in the retail sector. Supermarkets and convenience stores frequently switch out tens of thousands of products, and the size and space between aisles differs depending on the store. A person working in the convenience store business told the Mainichi Shimbun it is "far too expensive" for one company to build a huge product database for an AI to memorize, and then construct a robot compatible with each of its stores.

    Lawson Inc.'s tests with a robot to stack shelves are seen in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 17, 2020. A member of staff is seen on the right remotely controlling the robot. (Mainichi/Hajime Nakatsugawa)

    Amid these barriers to entry, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has taken the lead, and some 20 companies including the Aeon Group and the big three convenience store operators Seven & i Holdings Co., Lawson Inc. and FamilyMart Co. launched an initiative in July to develop a standardized specification for robots.

    The key to success on the issue is creating robot-friendly working environments. If each retail company can decide on a similar width for its aisles, and if the color of walls and materials used can be agreed to be those that are easier for robots to identify, then a standardized plan for robots could be reached, thereby reducing manufacturing costs.

    An official at the economy ministry said, "Cars became widely used because their passage was made easier by dividing roads into sidewalks and roadways. Our concept behind this isn't to change robots to suit shops, but to change the stores so that robots can work anywhere."

    The companies are also cooperating in the creation of a huge product database. The plan at present is to design a shared image database by fiscal 2024, and begin using it from fiscal 2025 or later. Shinichiro Yamamoto, the head of Kasumi which is leading the initiative, said, "We want to create a framework that can be used across the industry."

    A cost estimation by the government's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) suggests that the initiative could reduce companies' bills by some 30% compared to if they individually developed, introduced and mass-ordered robot technology.

    What the companies and the ministry are aiming for now is robots that can fulfill three functions: the ability to stock shelves; to know what products are sold out or past their sell-by dates; and being able to automatically complete transactions in which customers pay just by walking past them.

    An official at NEDO said, "Over 60% of work that takes place at retailers involves stocking shelves or interacting with customers at checkouts. If we can achieve widespread uptake of these robots, it will become possible for areas with few available workers to see new stores built. Benefits other than simple cost reductions will present themselves."

    Furthermore, the economy ministry's decision to get involved in the development of retail robots also belies an intention to restore Japan's reputation for specializing in industrial robots. According to the ministry, at the peak of its powers in the first half of the 1990s, Japan was known as the country for industrial robots, responsible for at least 90% of production internationally.

    Although Japan is still one of the world's major producers, calculations by the International Federation of Robotics in 2019 showed the country's share had slipped to 47%. The Japan Robot Association has said that China's growing dominance is behind the annual fall in Japan's share.

    A senior official at the ministry told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We want to spread Japan's strength in robotic technology out from factory floors and into retail spaces, and compete against countries including China."

    We'll have to wait and see if the day will come when Japanese-made robots like Chiro are working across the world.

    (Japanese original by Hajime Nakatsugawa, Business News Department)

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