Sleepy on the job? Omron wants AI that knows it

Research with Riken may yield more efficient factory floor

A porter robot zooms through the aisles of an Omron plant.

OSAKA — Omron, a Japanese manufacturer of factory automation equipment, will team with researchers from the Riken institute, looking to develop artificial intelligence that senses drowsy production workers or lets robots dodge people with just small movements.

Such AI could make automated machinery in factories more efficient, in response to worker shortages and soaring labor costs in emerging countries. Automated carrier robots could avoid more than just fixed obstacles, while new control devices might automatically reassign tasks or alter production speed after detecting a worker’s fatigue, a potential safety improvement as well.

Omron hopes to roll out production equipment and carrier robots equipped with such technology in five years. It is believed that production line efficiency can be doubled, especially for tasks such as product assembly that involve people.

A 20-person joint research facility will be established in June within Riken’s Brain Science Institute — Japan’s leading neuroscience research center — in the Saitama Prefecture city of Wako. Omron and the government-affiliated institute will dispatch full-time researchers to share AI and neuroscience knowledge as well as research the brain’s mechanisms.

The company plans to use Riken’s cutting-edge know-how in analyzing brain activity to take the lead in the intense race to develop next-generation AI technology. Researchers aim to gain a better understanding of how such factors as brain activity, facial expressions and pulse rate are affected by changes in intentions and emotions. The AI will learn these patterns, paving the way to gauging a person’s mental and emotional state.

Omron already works to boost manufacturing productivity via AI in its mainstay control equipment business, which accounts for about 40% of sales. The company hopes by 2018 to commercialize devices that use AI to detect damaged or defective products on the assembly line.

The electronics maker targets 1 trillion yen ($9.03 billion) in total sales for fiscal 2020, driven by demand for factory automation.

Japan’s AI development market will hit 2.12 trillion yen in fiscal 2030, a sevenfold increase from fiscal 2016, data from the Fuji Chimera Research Institute shows. That figure is expected to reach 334 billion yen within manufacturing alone.

More leading manufacturers are introducing productivity-raising AI. Toray Industries uses meters equipped with AI developed by a subsidiary to find production line abnormalities that only experienced engineers could find. Sony is incorporating AI into its Kumamoto Prefecture factory for image sensors, a market that the company dominates, to detect the source of faulty products.

(Nikkei)

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