Wearable robots in Japan

The rapid aging of Japanese society is spurring innovative attempts to make life easier for the silver set — and those who care for them. The technologies that result from these efforts may prove marketable in other graying nations, too.

Wearable robots are a prime example. These contraptions help seniors to walk and perform other tasks on their own, reducing the burden on caregivers. Major homebuilder Daiwa House Industry and a venture called Cyberdyne are about to put new ones on the market.

Osaka-based Daiwa House on Monday announced that it would release three Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL, suits on May 1. The suits work like this: Sensors attached to the wearer’s body pick up electric signals from the brain. These signals are decoded, allowing the suit to predict movements and help the wearer along.

The suits were developed and produced by Cyberdyne. The startup was launched by the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture — just north of Tokyo. Daiwa House is the venture’s No. 2 shareholder, with a roughly 20% stake; it also serves as a key sales representative for Cyberdyne robots in Japan.

Until now, only one type of Cyberdyne suit has been available. The three new ones will have different specialties. One will assist the lower body, another will aid elbows and knees, while the third will offer hip support.

The improved lower-body suit has greater sensor sensitivity, so that even people with extremely limited mobility can use it.

The device for knees and elbows can be used for rehabilitation. Weighing only 1.5kg, it is portable and can be worn while lying down.

The hip suit is designed for caregivers who have to lift bed-ridden seniors. The company says it eases the load on the waist by 40%.

Daiwa House’s goal is to use robot technology “to provide more comfort,” according to Kazumasa Tanaka, general manager of the company’s robotics business department and human care division.

Shifting fortunes

The robot business dovetails with Daiwa House’s nursing care-related operations. So far, the company has built a total of about 6,000 serviced apartments for seniors, nursing homes and other facilities. This makes it one of Japan’s top players in the sector.

The outlook for Japan’s housing market is murky. In 2014, housing starts fell 9% on the year. Daiwa House’s earnings remained strong overall, but the value of orders for single-family houses declined by 7% in the fiscal year ended March 2015. The value of orders for condominiums dropped 11%.

In contrast, the company projects a steady increase in demand for nursing homes and other care facilities. Serviced apartments for seniors totaled 177,000 nationwide at the end of March; the government wants to raise that number to 600,000 by 2020.

Of course, the care market’s potential is not lost on Daiwa House’s rivals. Competition is likely to intensify. Mobility robots could be a valuable tool for attracting customers.

In recent years, leading IT companies such as Google and SoftBank have made headlines with investments in robot ventures. Yet Daiwa House was ahead of the pack. It bought into Cyberdyne back in 2007, only three years after the venture was established. In 2008, Daiwa House set up the robot unit Tanaka leads.

On its own, Daiwa House has also developed robots that inspect the nooks and crannies of houses. The company aims to pool its know-how with Cyberdyne’s and develop a smaller, lighter HAL model for home use.

This year, Daiwa House is expected to draw up a new business strategy, targeting sales of 4 trillion yen ($33.1 billion) in the medium term. It earned an estimated 2.8 trillion yen in the just-ended business year.

Currently, Daiwa House’s overseas sales are estimated at around 100 billion yen. The company hopes to leverage the assist robots to expand in other countries with aging societies. Cyberdyne, which has several bases in Europe and elsewhere, is well-positioned on this front, too.

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