By Yoichiro Ando, SEMI Japan
Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, plans to stage a Robot Olympics in 2020 alongside the summer Olympic Games to be hosted in Tokyo. Abe said he wants to showcase the latest global robotics technology, an industry in which Japan has long been a pioneer. Japan’s Robot Strategy developed by the Robot Revolution Initiative Council plans to increase Japanese industrial robot sales to 1.2 trillion JPY by 2020. This article discusses how the robotics industry is not just a key pillar of Japan’s growing strategy but also a key application segment that may lead Japan’s semiconductor industry growth.
Japan leads robotics industry
According to International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the 2015 industrial robot sales increased by 15 percent to 253,748 units compared to the 2014 sales. Among the 2015 record sales, Japanese companies shipped 138,274 units that represent 54 percent of the total sales according to Japan Robot Association (JARA). The robotics companies in Japan include Yaskawa Electric, Fanuc, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Fujikoshi and Epson.
The automotive industry was the most important customer of industrial robots in 2015 that purchased 97,500 units or 38 percent of the total units sold worldwide. The second largest customer was the electrical/electronics industry (including computers and equipment, radio, TV and communication devices, medical equipment, precision and optical instruments) that showed significant growth of 41 percent to 64,600 units.
Semiconductors devices used in robotics industry
Robotics needs semiconductor devices to improve both performance and functionality. As the number of chips used in a robot increases and more advanced chips are required, the growing robotics market is expected to generate significant semiconductor chip demands.
Semiconductor devices in robots are used for collecting information; information processing and controlling motors and actuators; and networking with other systems.
- Sensing Devices: Sensors are used to collect information including external information such as image sensors, sound sensors, ultrasonic sensors, infrared ray sensors, temperature sensors, moisture sensors and pressure sensors; and movement and posture of the robot itself such as acceleration sensors and gyro sensors.
Enhancing these sensors’ sensitivity would improve the robot performance. However, for robot applications, smaller form factors, lighter weight, lower power consumption, and real-time sensing are also important. Defining all those sensor requirements for a specific robot application is necessary to find an optimal and cost-effective sensor solution.
In addition, noise immunity is getting more important in selecting sensors as robot applications expand in various environments that include noises. Another new trend is active sensing technology that enhances sensors’ performance by actively changing the position and posture of the sensors in various environments.
- Data Processing and Motor Control Devices: The information collected by the sensors is then processed by microprocessors (MPUs) or digital signal processors (DSPs) to generate control signals to the motors and actuators in the robot. Those processors must be capable of operating real-time to quickly control the robot movement based on processed and analyzed information. To further improve robot performance, new processors that incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) and ability to interact with the big data cloud database are needed.
- As robotics is adapted to various industry areas as well as other services and consumer areas, the robotics industry will need to respond to multiple demands. It is expected that more field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) will be used in the industry to manufacture robots to those demands.
In the control of motors and actuators, power devices play important roles. For precise and lower-power operation of the robot, high performance power devices using high band gap materials such as Silicon Carbide and Gallium Nitride will likely used in the industrial applications.
- Networking Devices: Multiple industrial robots used in a production line are connected with a network. Each robot has its internal network to connect its components. Thus every robot is equipped with networking capability as a dedicated IC, FPGA or a function incorporated in microcontrollers.
Smart Manufacturing or Industry 4.0 requires all equipment in a factory to be connected to a network that enables the machine-to-machine (M2M) communication as well as connection to the external information (such as ordering information and logistics) to maximize factory productivity. To be a part of such Smart Factories, industrial robots must be equipped with high-performance and high-reliability network capability.
Opportunities for semiconductor industry in Japan
Japanese semiconductor companies are well-positioned in the key semiconductor product segments for robotics such as sensors, microcontrollers and power devices. These products do not require the latest process technology to manufacture and can be fabricated on 200mm or smaller wafers at a reasonable cost. Japan is the region that holds the largest 200mm and smaller wafer fab capacity in the world and the lines are quite versatile in these product categories.
The robotics market will likely be a large-variety and small-volume market. Japanese semiconductor companies will have an advantage over companies in other regions because they can collaborate with leading robotics companies in Japan from early stages of development. Also, Japan may lead the robotics International Standards development which would be another advantage to Japanese semiconductor companies.