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New Fanuc Technology Connects Robots to Networks

TOKYO—Japanese industrial robot maker Fanuc Corp. said Monday it has developed technology to connect robots to networks that it hopes will give it an edge as it races to build the factory of the future.

The technology is meant to enable factory owners to easily customize their robots and systems by downloading any needed applications, much like a consumer downloads smartphone apps on IOS or Android platforms.

Rival robot makers would eventually be able to connect their machines and apps to the network. Fanuc would also seek revenue from app developers as a platform provider, a model used by Alphabet Inc. and Apple Inc.

The move marks a strategic shift for Fanuc, an industrial powerhouse known for its secretiveness. Chief Executive Yoshiharu Inaba said at a news conference that the initiative reflects a more open approach.

“We believe this will be a de facto standard for factories around the world,” Mr. Inaba said.

Toshimitsu Kawano, managing director of Beckhoff Automation Japan, a German-based automation equipment maker, said “this gives Fanuc a tremendous competitive edge because it would be the first player to provide such a service.”

“Bringing the concept of app stores to the factory robot industry is what U.S. and German companies are all planning for, but haven’t been able to do.”

Fanuc had the biggest share of the global industrial robot market last year with an estimated 17%, according to IHS analyst Jan Zhang.

Fanuc and rivals including General Electric Co., ABB Ltd. and Siemens AG are pushing to develop a default format for connected smart factories, where machines would optimize their own performance using artificial intelligence, an ideal often referred to as Industry 4.0.

Fanuc, which makes robots that assemble Apple’s iPhones and Tesla Motors Inc.’s electric cars, joined forces with Cisco Systems Inc., Rockwell Automation Corp. and Tokyo-based machine-learning startup Preferred Networks Inc. to build its new network platform.


Cisco and Rockwell will provide network expertise including security. Preferred Networks brings expertise in deep-learning, a branch of machine learning.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to leverage artificial intelligence to revive Japan’s economy, but experts say Japanese companies are running behind overseas competitors in research and development, partly due to insufficient collaboration.

Silicon Valley giants such as Alphabet and rising Chinese companies have increased investments in artificial intelligence, especially deep learning. They have snapped up researchers from around the world and have employed enormous data collected through years of providing online services.

The California-based companies have so far used their findings to beef up their online services, such as optimizing Internet searches. They have also begun to use the knowledge to enable autonomous driving.


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