Wearable robotics manufacturer ATOUN Inc. is fine-tuning its efforts to assist workers in a variety of industries. Katayama Osamu reports.
ATOUN Inc. is located in Nara, Nara Prefecture, an ancient city that nurtured Japanese culture in the eighth century when it was the nation’s capital. The company is situated within the grounds of the Narayama Research Park, which is surrounded by ancient tombs and residential districts.
“The sky is huge. It’s like Silicon Valley here. This is the perfect place for creative activities,” says Fujimoto Hiromichi, the company’s president, with a laugh.
ATOUN was founded in 2003 as an in-house venture company of Panasonic Corporation. The company is presently capitalized by Panasonic Corporation (69.8%) and Mitsui and Co. (29.9%). ATOUN is a fabless company that focuses on research and development and outsources production to other companies.
Having graduated from what is now the Division of Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering at the Graduate School of Engineering, Osaka University, Fujimoto joined Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., the present-day Panasonic Corporation, in 1997. He developed materials for small motors.
In 2001, Panasonic Corporation established a fund for the establishment of in-house ventures, the Panasonic Spin-Up Fund. Panasonic Corporation prepared funds totaling 10 billion yen for three years in order to discover and nurture human resources who aspire to launch a business. Fujimoto applied for the first phase of the funds at the age of 30, in his fourth year after joining the company.
Fujimoto said, “I wanted to create robots like those straight out of science fiction novels. I expected that I would be able to launch a business if I developed products with a focus on practical aspects after finding out about the power assist suit.”
Fujimoto kept his plan on hold for a year because the business outlook was uncertain in the beginning, but after examining his plan carefully, he finally established a company in June 2003. Fujimoto launched his business from a small room like a garage with two team members. He now employs 27 men and women of all ages, the average age being 35.
Developing Powered Wear
ATOUN seeks to create a society in which everyone can perform efficiently regardless of their physical strength. That is, the company seeks to create robots that enable even the elderly to carry heavy items or go up steep slopes easily.
“From the beginning, I thought of wearable robots,” says Fujimoto.
The first device ATOUN developed was an assist robot called the Power Assist Arm.
The movement of the arms of a person who is wearing the assist robot can be read by the force sensor and angled sensor, and its power and direction can be measured. The assist robot rotates a motor according to the movement intention in the manner of an electric pedal-assist bicycle to reduce the burden on human beings. That is, the arms follow in the direction in which a person wearing the Power Assist Arm pulls them. Wearing the device, a 30 kg weight can be lifted easily using only the power of your fingers.
ATOUN, by the way, means “human” (a) “and” (to) “robot” (un), which captures the company’s philosophy of creating a seamless harmony (aun) between humans and robots.
ATOUN’s next device was an extremely powerful powered suit that enables a 100-kg object to be lifted to a height of two meters with both arms by drawing on the core technology of the Power Assist Arm. The prototype NIO was launched in 2009.
NIO is a vehicle rather than a wearable robot. People can ride on it and operate it. It can walk if necessary. It looks like something that might appear in a science fiction novel.
The suit is ATOUN’s sole technology, but there are few market needs for such a robot.
Fujimoto explains, “The mission of this prototype is to develop very powerful control technology and apply it to mass-produced products. We are developing elements for this.”
For example, ATOUN has developed the KOMA, the prototype of a powered suit for the lower half of the body. A smaller version of NIO, the body weight has been reduced from 250 kg to 35 kg and is capable of carrying objects weighing up to 60 kg. In addition, KOMA runs on wheels on flat surfaces. If there are steps, the user can switch to two-foot-walking mode and climb them.
Fujimoto says, “We will equip edgy technology with an extremely powerful powered suit and show it to customers. On the other hand, for mass-produced products, we will create and apply that element as a technology that can meet current practical needs.”
Fifteen Years of Hardship
It has not been plain sailing for ATOUN. The company achieved almost no sales for two years after it was established. The company finally achieved a surplus in 2006, the third year after its establishment, and around that time, rehabilitation robots were attracting a great deal of global attention. A massive opportunity for raising funds arrived.
But Fujimoto had concerns and was afraid to take a step forward independently. Rather than raise funds externally, he chose to partner with Panasonic Healthcare Co. (now PHC Holdings Corporation), the business division of the parent company Panasonic Corporation, but the enterprise failed, with the novel wearable robot created by ATOUN failing to meet the high-level in-house quality and safety standards of Panasonic. The project ended with a technical transfer to Panasonic Corporation and the product has yet to be commercialized.
Says Fujimoto, “If I had succeeded in raising funds externally at the time, I would be in a completely different situation. But I had only three team members at the time. I did not have confidence and made an easy choice. I was immature as a corporate manager.”
Fujimoto did not give up after this initial failure. He made a significant shift from designing rehabilitation robots to powered wear for assisting with work. The strategy was successful.
With declining birthrates and the decrease in the working population becoming social issues, Fujimoto gradually came to focus on the direction of robots to be used in factories and logistical sites accelerated by the shortage of workers in factories and logistical sites and the needs for robotization.
ATOUN facilitated the practicality of the latest technologies created by prototypes, including NIO, in accordance with the needs of the people who use them at real sites. In 2015, ATOUN commercialized the ATOUN MODEL A, a wearable robot called Powered Wear.
The MODEL A, which weighs 7.4 kg, is a wearable robot with an emphasis on supporting the waist. A motor follows the user’s body movement as if it were pulling from behind when lifting something heavy. Currently, 270 MODEL A robots are used to load and unload heavy items at factories and construction sites.
In addition, ATOUN received many requests from nursing care workers to introduce the MODEL A, all of which Fujimoto declined.
“Nursing care workers have to carry out work that places a burden on their waist, but they also carry out work that does not require power, such as helping patients eat and making beds. It is not realistic for nursing care workers to do such work while wearing the MODEL A,” Fujimoto explains.
It takes some time and effort to put on and take off the MODEL A. To make it more practical for nursing care workers, it was necessary to make the wearable robot even lighter and more functional.
In December 2017, ATOUN launched the MODEL Y, the successor model to the MODEL A. The MODEL Y, which weighs 4.4 kg, is 40% lighter than the conventional model. It also enables the user to move more smoothly with an improved feel while wearing it and better mobility.
The MODEL Y is expected to be test-introduced in the area of nursing care and is projected to achieve annual sales of 1,000 units initially and annual sales of 2,000 units by 2020. In addition, there is also the possibility of the MODEL Y being utilized in agriculture.
“For example, when people harvest tomatoes and pack them into boxes, they load and unload these boxes. I think that our wearable robot could help them carry out that work,” Fujimoto says.
But the wearable robot being developed by ATOUN is intended for different purposes from a fully automatic robot for harvesting tomatoes. ATOUN is seeking to develop a robot that assists people with a focus on people.
Wearable robots that can reduce the burden on people include those developed by CYBERDYNE Inc., which deals with robots for medicine, independence assistance and nursing care, and Honda Walking Assist.
ATOUN has a strategy of developing robots for general-purpose areas, such as factories, logistics and construction, as its strength.
From now on, ATOUN plans to develop powered wear combining modules that support the arms and legs with the MODEL Y.
In addition, ATOUN will also work on forestry as an industrial area in which aging is significant. Starting from 2016, ATOUN will take five years to develop the TABITO assist suit to be used for forestry in collaboration with Sumitomo Forestry Co., Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute and Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST).
Says Fujimoto, “Forestry workers have to carry out heavy work, such as afforestation and planting seedlings, while going up and down steep slopes on disordered land carrying items. Forestry is a field that requires the toughest and heaviest work efforts. That is why we are taking on the challenge of developing a robot that can be used for forestry.”
In developing an assist suit for forestry, ATOUN listens to customer requests, shows products to customers while they are developing them, listens to customers point out the aspects to be improved and continues to develop the product by modifying it. ATOUN has confirmed that its robot can reduce the burden on work by up to 17% on a myoelectric value basis. The company has a goal of exceeding 20%.
“The equipment weighs 20 kg, but because the weight is designed to flow into the ground, we believe that the user will hardly notice it,” Fujimoto says.
ATOUN expects the market price of the robot to be about 1 million yen per unit.
ATOUN is working to make its robots lighter, but has a long way to go until it can achieve the ideal goal of a wearable robot.
“We envisage developing a wired brassiere,” says Fujimoto. “If people wear powered wear between their clothing and their underwear, they can work for many hours while wearing it.”
ATOUN invites engineers who engaged in the planning of brassieres at Wacoal, an underwear manufacturer, and engineers who engaged in the planning of the standards of CW-X, a brand that applied the manufacturer’s taping technology to tights, as technical development advisors. ATOUN is striving to improve comfort while wearing the devices.
ATOUN is also attempting to tap into overseas markets. ATOUN test-introduced its robot to Gammon Construction Limited, a leading construction company in Hong Kong. ATOUN also sent test models to countries where construction and logistics are vibrant, such as Singapore and Taiwan, and obtains feedback from them. The sales networks of Panasonic Corporation and Mitsui and Co. are major strengths.
“From now on, we plan to tap into new markets by listening to feedback from onsite workers in many countries,” says Fujimoto. “In Japan, regulations are so tight that we have difficulty conducting demonstration tests. Hong Kong and Taiwan utilize robots actively. They can carry out business comparatively freely by obtaining cooperation from central governments.”
From now on, ATOUN will consider using and utilizing artificial intelligence (AI); for example, by facilitating easy movements and comfortable controls according to the specific characteristics of individual movements, by applying AI to powered wear.
In addition, ATOUN has taken on a new challenge. In May 2018, the company launched a brand called FUMA in collaboration with the creator group PARTY.
FUMA is intended to combine the attractions of traditional arts with the latest technologies in which ATOUN has strength, and to provide new experience value. For the first project, ATOUN developed a luxury aroma circulator using Arita porcelain ware and Nambu ironware which retails for more than 70,000 yen. ATOUN intends to advance into a new field of traditional arts by combining the latest robotics technologies.
Can ATOUN change the solutions of social issues into growing power through innovations of powered wear and FUMA? The challenge of ATOUN, which has marked the 15th anniversary of its foundation, has only just begun.
KATAYAMA Osamu is an economics journalist and representative of K-Office. He has published extensively, including Sumato kakumei de seicho suru Nihon keizai (Growing the Japanese Economy with the Smart Revolution), and Naze Za Puremiamu Morutsu ha uretsuzukeru noka? (Why does The Premium Malt’s beer sell so well?). Recent publications include Samsun kuraishisu (The Samsung Crisis).