Robots are taking on new roles in society

Industrial robot makers are now looking to apply their high-precision control technologies in health care, with remotely operated medical equipment and robotic walkers that assist people with restricted mobility.

At a home appliance trade show in March in Shanghai, Kuka, a German industrial-robot manufacturer, made a splash with an ultrasound medical device with a robotic arm. It can be remotely operated and could help provide medical services to people in rural and remote locations.

The German maker debuted its technology in Japan last year. Various tools can be attached to the robotic arm, with the device remotely operated via a video screen. Its millimeter-scale precision could, in the future, allow it to provide injections, endoscopy and other treatments to patients.

“The skill level of particular medical operations can vary depending on human practitioners,” said Yasuhiro Hoshino, CEO of Kuka’s Japan unit. “But robotics are capable of demonstrating consistent performance.”

Robotics makers have been at the heart of large-scale factory automation in the auto, electric device and other sectors, and they are now applying this expertise to other fields. Global sales of industrial robots have grown to 290,000 units in 2016, from 160,000 in 2012, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

Demand for cost-cutting by automating manual labor is strong, especially in China. New areas of demand have been growing in the past several years, including in packaging for food and cosmetics products.

Medical services and care for the elderly are promising markets for robot companies.

Japan’s Yaskawa Electric is keen to promote its robots that help with restricted ankle mobility and in upper-limb rehabilitation for people who have suffered strokes, for example. Its mobility-assistance robot uses data from sensors and built-in motors to help the wearer with walking exercises.

Yaskawa plans to add three more models over the next several years, targeting 10 billion yen ($93.4 million) in sales in the medical and nursing care sector by fiscal 2025.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries, meanwhile, aims to roll out surgery-assistance robots, now under development, by March 2020.

The company has partnered with Sysmex, a manufacturer of testing and diagnostic devices, to set up a joint venture, Medicaroid. The partners are considering setting up a medical robot factory in Hyogo Prefecture, western Japan, by around 2020. Yasuhiko Hashimoto, CEO of the joint venture, said robot technologies can help alleviate the problems of a rapidly aging society.

One idea is to develop collaborative robots to work alongside people. Industrial robot makers are, for example, covering some of their robots with soft materials and using sensors to avoid them coming into contact with humans.

Hurdles remain, though, including a lack of regulatory framework to minimize accidents. The enormous expense of the devices — often millions of dollars per robot — is also likely to limit their use.

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