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Posted on : Wednesday 17th June 2020 11:56 AM

FANUC Why German Car Manufacturers Now Buy Japanese Robots

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Amongst the trees at the foot of Japan's sacred Mount Fuji, plenty yellow spots shine. The work suits are as yellow as the vehicles and the manufacturing halls. The robots that build fresh yellow robots around the clock are also yellow. Buzzing, her arms grip new individual parts, insert them into each other, and tighten screws. The limited supervisors can barely tell which robot is building and which robot is being built. Thus, the parent machines are marked with a green band on the gripper.

Several of the 7000 industrial robots that leave FANUC's factories in Oshino every month will weld and paint vehicle bodies. And not only in Japan. The company exports its machines to China, North America - and increasingly also to Germany. "A few years ago our robots were only used at Opel, but that has changed drastically," says CEO Yoshiharu Inaba, who happens for a talk in the yellow blazer. Meanwhile, multiple German car manufacturers are operating the Japanese machines.

So far, another manufacturer has clearly dominated their factories. However, the position of Augsburg robot manufacturer Kuka is no longer undisputed. "Market shares have shifted," says Munich automation expert Professor Horst Wildemann. One possible reason for this in the industry is the change of ownership at Kuka. Two years ago, the Chinese electronics group Midea acquired a majority stake in the company. Since then, car manufacturers have presumed that strategically important production data could flow off to China and become the property of competitors.

In principle, expert Wildemann believes that these concerns are understandable. However, since Midea had subjected itself to strict rules when buying, there would be no concrete reason for these fears. "The contract excludes any access to our customers' data", confirmed Kuka boss Till Reuter recently in an interview with WirtschaftsWoche.

But a bit of mistrust stays. "We take care not to become too dependent on a company that is in Chinese hands," says a major car manufacturer. Ralf Winkelmann also acknowledges the reservations. "I can't look into the minds of the car manufacturers," says the managing director of Fanuc in Germany. "But the fact is that we have been able to acquire many projects."

With sales of around 226 million euros in Germany, the Japanese manufacturer set a new record last year, selling more than 5,000 robots for the first time. Its market share is thus more than 25 percent. Fanuc is already number two in Volkswagen's factories. According to an insider, the Wolfsburg-based company recently ordered just as many machines from the Japanese as from Kuka for parts of the production.

The reach of the Chinese for the Augsburg robot manufacturer had set the German automotive industry on fire in 2016. The machines, which are networked via the Internet, grant the deepest insights into production. Thousands of robots constantly transmitting data about products, quantities and quality to Kuka are a perfect seismograph for the entire industry.

For Chinese manufacturers, who are now regarded by the industry as quite serious competitors of tomorrow, this insight would be of hardly estimable value. In order to pronounce their fears, a number of German car managers made representations to the Berlin Ministry of Economics in 2016. However, no car boss publicly opposed the takeover. The fact that the government in Berlin has now made Chinese company acquisitions in Germany more hard and has just prohibited a takeover for the first time is also a consequence of the discussion at the time.

Never stop

Fanuc boss Inaba does not see himself as a profiteer of widespread Chinese scepticism. He rather refers to the high reliability of his machines. The company assures customers lifelong service, no matter how old the robots get: "Our top priority is that factories never have to stop with our machines," says Inaba. New Fanuc robots run at full speed throughout the night before delivery to test their functions under full load.

The company is little known in Germany to date. Globally, however, it has long been a power. With 400,000 models installed worldwide, Fanuc leads in industrial robots ahead of Yaskawa (360,000 units) and ABB (300,000 units). Fanuc is also the world's largest manufacturer of milling and drilling machines used in the production of smartphone housings, for example. In 2017, sales leapt 35 percent to a record EUR 5.7 billion, with a net margin of 25 percent, well above the industry average. Kuka achieved a turnover of 3.5 billion euros last year.

The company name Fanuc stands for Fuji Automatic Numerical Control and refers to the origin of the company that manufactured controls for machine tools. In 1956 the engineer Seiuemon Inaba founded the company as a department of Fujitsu, since 1972 it has been independent. A little later, the Japanese also constructed engines for machines, followed by industrial robots and small machine tools. Together with its Japanese customers, Fanuc finally expanded into China and North America.

"We don't want to be too dependent on a Chinese company"


The yellow robots soon found their way into General Motors' car factories and eventually showed up in the factories of German vehicle manufacturers in the USA and Mexico. Fanuc used the contacts to the German car manufacturers and adapted its machines to German and European standards. In the summer of 2017, the company opened a distribution centre in Luxembourg, and in the autumn Fanuc inaugurated a German development site in Neuhausen near Stuttgart.

Founder Inaba once attributed the global success to the extreme isolation. Robot sales are like war, he stated, and therefore had information about businesses, customers and machines guarded like military secrets. For a long time, for example, employees were only allowed to send e-mails from special terminals. Since 2015, however, his son and successor has opened up the company to some extent. "We are not a yellow cult behind a mysterious veil," stresses the 69-year-old Fanuc boss. Such an image would only frighten off foreign customers.

The signs orient to further enlargement: a new plant in Chikusei, Japan, will start trial operation in August and increase capacity to 4000 units by the end of 2019. Fanuc plans to use it to produce up to 11,000 robots per month.

And the Japanese offensive goes even further. In 2019 Fanuc wants to present the software platform FIELD for the complete networking of machines, robots, controllers and sensors in a factory in Germany. This should extend the concept of zero downtime, with which Fanuc has been scoring in the USA for two years. The robots then provide real-time data on their operation. This enables preventive maintenance through timely replacement of worn parts. "We have the most advanced technology and are therefore part of the transformation to Industry 4.0," explains CEO Inaba confidently. Fanuc does not store the data collected close to the machine in the data center of a so-called cloud provider, but processes it directly itself. This is intended to increase safety. Fanuc cooperates closely with Preferred Networks, Japan's most important start-up for artificial intelligence.

Inaba sees no growth limits, the market for industrial robots will be much larger in the future. For example, robots could be used in the final assembly of vehicles and could replace every second worker there in the medium term. How to do this can be read in a demonstration room in Oshino. There, a so-called collaborative robot places a spare wheel in the boot, a worker only has to tighten it. The "Cobot" stops automatically if the human being comes too close. Man and machine are already working together in the Fanuc factories for testing purposes. A gripper arm lifts a heavy wire harness, guides it to a half-finished robot frame and gives the command "Please start work" orally. Then the worker may fasten the rope. "The machines still have difficulties with all soft materials, but technological development is currently exponential," says Inaba. To mark the Cobots, Fanuc wraps them in green foam. Competitor Kuka cannot expect such a protective cushion.

This article is originally posted on FANUC.COM

german car manufacturers japanese robots

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