A Kyoto Robotics robot hard at work on a factory line. Image: Kyoto Robotics

“I’m a union guy,” US President Joe Biden told an audience at the Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 31.

“I support unions. Unions built the middle class. It’s about time they start to get a piece of the action.”

In the context of America’s extreme inequality, this is a welcome sentiment – but technology and business trends are not going Biden’s way.

US President Joe Biden speaks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 31, 2021. The US economy regained a massive 916,000 jobs in March, the biggest increase since August, with nearly a third of the increase in the hard-hit leisure and hospitality sector, the Labor Department reported on April 2, 2021. Photo: AFP / Jim Watson

On April 8, Japanese industrial conglomerate Hitachi Ltd announced that it had purchased 96% of the shares of Kyoto Robotics, a designer and producer of three-dimensional machine vision and AI (artificial intelligence) robot control systems.

Kyoto Robotics’ mission statement reads: “We believe that there will come a day when all manual labor in factories and warehouses can be completely replaced by automation using intelligent robots.”

Established in 2000, Kyoto Robotics specializes in 3D vision sensors, motion planning, robot arm and tool control and machine learning. Its technology emerged from research projects at Ritsumeikan University, a private university in Kyoto that is well known for science and engineering.

CEO Gang Xu was formerly a professor of computer science at Ritsumeikan, president of the Chinese Academy of Science and Engineering in Japan and a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo, Harvard Robotics Lab, Motorola Australian Research Center and Microsoft Research China.

With an estimated 60% of the Japanese market, Kyoto Robotics is a world leader in 3D vision for bin-picking (pick & place) handling robots.

Its 3D vision sensors are compatible with industrial robots made by Yasukawa Electric, FANUC, Denso (auto parts maker for the Toyota Group), Nachi-Fujikoshi, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Electric, Universal Robots of Denmark (owned by Teradyne of the United States) and Swiss-Swedish robot maker ABB.

End users include Toyota Motor and other Toyota group companies, Hitachi group companies, Panasonic, bearing makers NSK and NTN, Nippon Steel, the worldwide customers of the above-mentioned robot makers, and Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.

According to the press release, the Hitachi Group will now “be able to provide one-stop and speedy robotic SI [system integration] for entire automated lines in the fields of logistics and FA [factory automation].”

A logo of Japan’s high-tech giant Hitachi at an exhibition in Tokyo on October 29, 2013. Photo: AFP / Yoshikazu Tsuno

Hitachi Ltd is a multinational company with sales estimated at ¥8,300 billion (US$75 billion) in the year to March 2021. With sales offices in dozens of countries, it will be able to take Kyoto Robotics’ technology worldwide.

This should have a significant long-term impact on manufacturing. As explained on Kyoto Robotics’ website:

A robot equipped with vision and intelligence is able to perform two types of automation: the supply, assembly, and processing of parts inside a factory, and the sorting and transportation of goods inside a distribution warehouse…

The “eyes” of an industrial robot should provide it with the ability to perform object recognition and pose estimation in three dimensions. This problem can be defined as a search problem in a six-dimensional space [X, Y, Z coordinates and α, β, γ rotational angles]. This problem has remained difficult for over 30 years due to its complexity. A typical application would require searching through a trillion points in the search space. In addition to this, the “brains” of an industrial robot should provide it with the ability to intelligently control its motion based on what it sees.

After more than 20 years of R&D and shipment of more than 400 systems, the object recognition accuracy of Kyoto Robotics’ 3D vision sensors in practical operation has been calculated at more than 99.99%.

Kyoto Robotics has many competitors, including Omron, Keyence, Canon and Mujin (Japan), Solomon (Taiwan), Cognex (USA), Stemmer (Germany), Photoneo (Slovakia), Gideon Brothers (Croatia), Zivid (Norway) and Scape Technologies (Denmark).

According to Scape:

Nearly 40% of the manual labor force is physically transferring parts from bins into machines. However, a big chunk of labor time is spent on tedious, repetitive and strenuous tasks which are still poorly automated in this day and age. One example of such a process, which is very complicated to automate, is bin-picking.

Regular robots cannot handle randomly scattered parts in a bin/box. Most cannot even handle semi-structured parts that are layered on a pallet or in a bin/box. So what if an operator could just drop the parts in the bin and the robot would know what to do next?

This is what Scape, Kyoto Robotics and the other companies offer.

Items in a factory bin from which a Kyoto Robotics robot with 3D vision can pick and place. Photo: Kyoto Robotics

On April 9, Amazon’s warehouse employees in Alabama voted against forming a union by a margin of 2.4 to 1.0. It was big news in the context of President Biden’s remarks, but with Amazon paying a minimum of $15.00 per hour compared with the state minimum wage of $7.25, not particularly surprising.

According to an April 10 article in the Wall Street Journal, “Pro-union workers said they wanted more say over break times, how they are monitored by the company and the rate at which they are expected to sort and move packages.”

A totally automated warehouse, of course, would not require break times, would not complain about being watched or about the speed of the workflow. Robots don’t need health care or retirement packages either.

On April 11, The Wall Street Journal reported that its own analysis had shown that despite the economic downturn, high unemployment and widespread suffering caused by Covid-19, CEOs at 206 of 322 of the largest publicly traded companies in America received pay increases in 2020. The median increase was nearly 15%.

Average compensation for all 322 CEOs rose 7% to $13.7 million, or 175 times the median American household income of $78,500 calculated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Clearly, the CEOs are not planning to give employees a larger “piece of the action.”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos after receiving the 2019 International Astronautical Federation Excellence in Industry Award during the the 70th International Astronautical Congress at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, October 22, 2019. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

According to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute issued in May 2019, “Labor’s share of national income – that is, the amount of GDP paid out in wages, salaries, and benefits – has been declining since the 1980s in a number of countries, and notably the United States.”

But despite the seemingly unlimited greed of American CEOs, there are signs that this trend is starting to reverse. President Biden’s advocacy of a higher corporate tax rate and a $15 national minimum wage, along with investors’ resistance to runaway executive compensation, point in this direction.

On the other hand, the survival of traditional American unions – whose adversarial relationship with management has contributed to the decline of American manufacturing – seems very much in doubt.

Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.