25 Jul 2024


Covid-19 accelerates launch of ‘robotic employees’

MusashiAI’s autonomous forklift system can perform logistics tasks previously restricted to forklifts driven by humans

A Japanese-Israeli robotics joint venture that was created late last year before the Coronavirus pandemic had taken hold globally, has announced its first commercial products, claiming that the Covid-19 has made its concept of “robotic workforces” even more relevant in the age of social distancing.

Last December, MusashiAI, a joint venture between Israel’s SixAI and Japan’s Musashi Seimitsu (a Honda Motor Corporation affiliate), announced its concept of “robot employment agency” that rents industrial robots to companies by the hour, or charges a “salary” based on the completion of tasks. It said that its “unique” business model would give industrial users the option to source robotic labour without the significant capital costs of having to buy new robots.

Now the company has announced the commercial availability of its visual quality control inspector, autonomous forklift and mobile robot fleet management technologies.

Trials of the technologies at a Musashi Seimitsu factory in Japan are said to have exceeded expectations and to have overcome previous technological barriers for autonomous industrial robots. In addition to an initial advance payment of $10m, Musashi Seimitsu now says it is willing to expand the deployment of the quality control inspectors and autonomous forklifts to other factories in its global network of 33 plants in 14 countries, subject certain development milestones being achieved.

MusashiAI has also secured a proof-of-concept (POC) order for its quality control inspector robot with “one of the world’s largest bearing manufacturers”. MusashiAI will also undertake three POCs for its autonomous forklifts and central management system with Israeli retail and consumer goods customers later this year. This will be the first time the robots will be tested outside of the Musashi Seimitsu group.

Until now, robotic inspectors have not been able to match the ability of humans to detect and identify surface defects quickly and accurately. Existing quality inspection robots on manufacturing lines have typically been less accurate and slower than humans. MusashiAI says it can customise its robots to suit a customer’s needs and the completion of the Japanese trials has confirmed that its visual inspector robots exceed the speed, accuracy, and stamina of human workers.

The company’s other robotic technology, the autonomous forklifts, navigate using a proprietary fleet management technology incorporating perception and decision-making software which, in combination with low-cost HD cameras, can predict incidents and prevent accidents. The autonomous forklifts navigate routes among human workers using a “unique” technology that combines the cameras with a “birds-eye” control tower view of the factory floor. The trials have shown that logistics tasks previously restricted to forklifts driven by humans can now be performed autonomously by the robots. They are said to have exceeded expectations with their efficiency, cost-effectiveness and safety.

With the growth of the Covid-19 pandemic and the progress made in the first three months of the trials, testing efforts were accelerated at Musashi Seimitsu’s factory in Japan for the last phase of the trial. The result has been a streamlining of the process for training the robots. An advanced form of deep learning was developed that parallels the way the human brain absorbs and assimilates information, making it easier to switch the robots between tasks. MusashiAI predicts that its latest robotic models could become “essential” in the socially-distanced industrial settings.

“The goal of the joint venture with Musashi Seimitsu has always been to work towards our vision of Industry 4.0, where human workers do human jobs and are not trapped in manual industrial jobs,” says MusashiAI’s co-founder, Ran Poliakine.

“Globally, nearly 30 million people work in gruelling visual inspection jobs. Many of these people suffer chronic health conditions from this work, such as carpal tunnel syndrome,” he explains. “No doubt a large number of them have been furloughed because many industrial settings are now unsafe due to the coronavirus. These people are not key workers, but what they do is essential.

“Businesses will need their final products inspected, and we are offering the world a solution which can shield employees from this deadly virus and the chronic health problems associated with their work, and the major economic danger of stalling business for much longer,” Poliakine continues.

“To our knowledge, current market incumbents do not offer visual quality control inspection robots which surpass the skills of human workers. Moreover, the majority of the visual inspectors available on the market inspect full assembly parts or geometric defects. Our visual inspector detects tiny surface defects, which is a far more complicated and labour-intensive task.

“These robots are designed with people in mind – the vision is that they integrate easily onto the production floor where there will still be some human workers, but release other works from this particular drudgery,” Poliakine adds. “They are friendly-looking and easy to deploy wherever they are needed. Our Opex model means clients can deploy robots when and where they need them, without extensive Capex.

“The interest from Musashi Seimitsu, coupled with our latest finalised proof-of-concept trials with a world-leading manufacturer and three leading Israeli logistics companies, is a great sign of confidence in our technology and the gifts it brings to the future of humanity. I am excited about the company’s next steps.”