Olivier de Berranger

Please, draw me a robot

At the foot of Mount Fuji, near Lake Yamanaka, in the heart of a forest of larch trees and red pines, thousands of small yellow robots busy themselves day and night to build…other robots. When the humans that work at the facility in Oshino go home in the evening, they turn off the lights: their colleagues don’t need them. In the 4.0 factories of Japanese company FANUC, every year 4,000 robots make 70,000 new robots. We visited the headquarters of this global leader in industrial robotics four years ago, and it was fascinating. Our second visit to the company, which was founded in 1956 by Dr Seiuemon Inaba, was no less astonishing. 60 years and 500,000 robots later, FANUC – which still employs 10,000 humans around the world – is the leading player in industrial automation systems, supplying firms from TESLA to LVMH (BULGARI watches).

FANUC – now a €34 billion company – is emblematic of the 4th Industrial Revolution now being fuelled by data, robotics and artificial intelligence (IA), which looks set to be one of the most disruptive in history. Even in less robot-friendly countries then Japan, the ultra-connected, data-saturated 4.0 factory will have a profound impact on how work is organised, and as such, the relationship between people and machines. We are going to have to learn to cope with the increasing prevalence of automation (the industrial robotics sector reported revenue of $16.5 billion in 2018*), although it’s not entirely a done deal. For some, too many robots could kill the robot. We remember when Elon Musk blamed “over-robotisation” for production delays, saying that TESLA had relied on too many robots to build the Model 3, and then embarked on a mass recruitment drive to get the cars built.

Without believing blindly in the virtuous powers of technology to serve the interests of humanity, we remain resolute optimists and see this revolution as a landscape rich with opportunities. The champions of the 4.0 revolution will include companies that manage to combine the strengths of both humans and robots, two complementary sources of value creation. INTUITIVE SURGICAL is the perfect example. The machines built by this global leader in surgical robotics are controlled by surgeons, whose skills receive a considerable boost from the AI and augmented reality modules, plus the super-efficient four-arm robots. This winning combination, which ensures a better service and shorter patient recovery times, also helps the medical institutions that invest in these technologies to manage their all-important budgets and finances.

As with previous revolutions, “destructive innovation” will open up new vistas. And little by little, we will learn to enjoy good working relationships with colleagues that are a little more…artificial.

* International Federation of Robotics