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Is the Pepper humanoid about to get a new lease on life? Reuters reported this morning that Softbank is in discussions to sell Softbank Robotics Europe, its French robotics business, to United Robotics Group. Softbank Robotics Europe is responsible for the Nao and Pepper robots. A robotics distributor in Germany, United Robotics Group was named the master distributor for both robots throughout Europe earlier in October.
United Robotics Group also distributes the Double 3 telepresence robot, the Pudu service robot, Boston Dynamics’ Spot quadruped, Temi, and the Sawyer collaborative robot arm. United is backed by Hahn, a major industrial automation player in Germany. Hahn acquired the IP for Rethink Robotics after the company shut down in 2018. Hahn has since relaunched Sawyer.
The Robot Report has reached out to both Softbank Robotics Europe and United Robotics Group. If we hear back, we will update this story.
United has offices in Austria and Germany, and is opening another office in Paris, which is also where Softbank Robotics Europe is based.
In June 2021, Softbank Robotics Europe laid off 40% of its employees in Paris. An employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Robot Report at the time that “the market for Nao and Pepper is smaller than we expected.” The source also said Softbank wouldn’t be focusing on the Nao and Pepper robots much going forward.
Reuters reported in June 2021 that Softbank stopped production of Pepper in 2020 and has fewer than 2,000 units left. Reuters cites unnamed sources who said 27,000 Pepper robots were manufactured since it was introduced in 2014. Softbank, however, has continued to say it is committed to Pepper.
Pepper has been a money-losing proposition since it was introduced. Softbank Robotics Europe, formerly known as Aldebaran Robotics before it was acquired by Softbank for $100 million in 2012, lost $38 million in its fiscal 2019-2020 year and more than $119 million over the last three years.
According to Reuters, SoftBank will end sales of new Pepper units in 2023 at the latest. Sales of refurbished units will continue after this point, Reuters reported.
It’s been clear for a while that both Nao and Pepper weren’t going to be a major part of Softbank’s robotics strategy going forward. In January 2021, for example, it was announced that Softbank Robotics will jointly develop robots with Japanese electronics maker Iris Ohyama. The joint venture, called Iris Robotics, never mentions Nao or Pepper.
The Whiz cleaning robot is Softbank’s new flagship robot, according to a source. Softbank has made other changes to its robotics strategy, most notably offloading 80% of its ownership stake in Boston Dynamics to Hyundai for $880 million. It also paid $2.8 billion for a 40% ownership stake in AutoStore, a leading developer of automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), that debuted earlier this week on the Oslo Stock Exchange. AutoStore currently has a global blue-chip customer base with more than 600 installations and 20,000 robots across 35 countries.
Softbank also recently partnered with Bear Robotics on serving and bussing robots. Founded in 2017, Bear Robotics’ robots operate in restaurants, corporate campuses, ghost kitchens, senior care facilities, and casinos across North America, Asia, and Europe. Softbank is an investor in Bear Robotics.