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Singapore Startup Lends Japan’s Aging Factory Workers Robot Hand

Eureka Robotics, a robotics startup spun off from one of Singapore’s leading universities, is making a foray into Japan, hoping to transform the country’s manufacturing through AI, the company CEO told Nikkei Asia.

Eureka CEO Pham Quang Cuong said the startup opened an office in Tokyo this year and aims to win customers for its automation software through partnerships with manufacturers in Japan, one of the world’s largest markets for industrial robots.

“There’s an economic pressure, but also a social mandate for companies to improve automation because of demographic changes,” said Pham, who is also an associate professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) currently on leave.

The Singapore-based company is looking to expand its handful of staff in Japan to around 30 or so over the next two years. “We want to work with Japanese companies to help them integrate robotics and AI in their product line,” Pham said.

Eureka’s core software connects robotic arms, 2D and 3D cameras and sensors to perform tasks with high precision, such as picking up fragile objects like optical lenses or electronic components measuring as little as a few millimeters across.

The product comes as a package that includes both hardware and software and is marketed to a wide range of manufacturers from lens makers to companies engaged in maintenance, repair and overhaul in the aviation industry to logistics companies.

Even with limited expertise in coding, engineers can easily set up and customize tasks using simple commands that can be displayed as block diagrams on a computer screen.

Unlike competing products, Pham said Eureka’s software allows robots to perform with both high precision and agility. Many industrial robots in use today are precise but not agile, meaning they are good at performing repetitive tasks such as auto assembly but are unable to perform a wide range of tasks.

On the other hand, those with low precision and high agility, such as robots used in warehouses that can handle parcels of different sizes and configurations, are unable to do precise work or handle delicate objects.

With Eureka software, “Workers can be freed from mundane, repetitive tasks […] and ensure high-quality control by minimizing human errors,” Pham said.

The company’s technology originates from research by Pham, who began his career as a neuroscientist. The Vietnamese researcher obtained his doctorate in France and later did postdoctoral research in robotics at the University of Tokyo before joining NTU.

Pham’s work attracted attention, particularly the “IKEA Bot,” a robot equipped with a 3D camera with two robotic arms that was able to make and execute a plan to assemble a flat-pack chair from the furniture store in just 20 minutes. The breakthrough was published in the journal Science Robotics and went viral on the internet.

With the help of NTU, Pham spun off the research in 2018 and was later joined by a former Ph.D., student Hung Pham, who is now Eureka’s chief technology officer. Last year, the company raised USD 4.25 million in a fundraising round led by University of Tokyo Edge Capital Partners (UTEC), the venture capital linked to Pham’s alma mater.

Most of the company’s revenue comes from multinational companies based in Singapore, Pham said, but Eureka sees its “biggest opportunity” in Japan, a country where automation is becoming an urgent task as the population ages.

The number of young workers in the manufacturing industry has fallen by 1.21 million over the past two decades, according to an industry white paper. The number of elderly workers, meanwhile, has risen by about 330,000 over the same period.

While China is the largest market for industrial robots, Pham noted that Japan’s eagerness to welcome foreign companies is a plus. “Very early on, we had this idea that we need to go overseas, and for us, Japan is No. 1,” he said.

Pham said the company is already making strides with Sigma Koki, a Japanese optical equipment maker, in automating the detection of defects and scratched lenses. The two companies are seeking to sell the product to third parties. Other partners include Denso Wave, an industrial robotics firm.

“People had this image of Japanese companies wanting to do everything on their own […] and didn’t collaborate with anybody,” Pham said. “But if they want to compete on [a] global scale, then monozukuri (“craftsmanship”) is not sufficient.”



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