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Softbank Group continues to shake up its approach to robotics. It announced today that its robotics division, Softbank Robotics, will jointly develop commercial robots with Japanese electronics maker Iris Ohyama.
The joint venture will be called Iris Robotics, and it forecast sales of $965 million by 2025. Iris Ohyama will own a 51% stake in the joint venture, while Softbank Robotics will own the other 49%. Iris Robotics will be located in Sendai, Japan.
As for initial products, the companies highlighted two products that are evolutions of existing products. The first product is a new take on Softbank’s Whiz cleaning robot called the “Whiz i Iris Edition.” In addition to Whiz’s current ability to clean floors, this new robot “is expected to reduce the amount of bacteria floating in the space and bacteria including viruses on the floor, and also promote sales using speakers and cameras with connectors that can be connected to various external devices.”
The second product appears to be an updated version of Bear Robotics’ flagship robot, Servi. The “Servi Iris Edition” transportation robot will deliver food and other items at restaurants, hotels, inns, and retail stores. The companies said they “plan to add new value and create markets by adding functions such as voice guidance, payment linkage, and image recognition.”
Interestingly, Softbank’s Nao and Pepper robots aren’t part of this deal.
Iris Ohyama issued a press release in Japanese about the joint venture. We translated the press release (using Google Translate) and have reprinted the English translation below.
“In addition to the serious labor shortage in Japan, the spread and prolongation of the new coronavirus infection requires companies to further reduce costs and provide high added value that can differentiate them from other companies. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out drastic structural reforms such as minimizing costs for simple work and routine work in a company by utilizing robots, and promoting digital transformation for advanced work that creates added value.
“Under these circumstances, Iris Robotics, which will be established this time, has knowledge in various industries through an extensive sales network of new product development capabilities and manufacturer vendors (integrated form of manufacturing and wholesale), and AI robot OS field. We aim to create a market in the field of services and robots for corporations by forming a partnership with the SoftBank Robotics Group, which has high technology in Japan.
“In addition, by creating new labor markets and employment opportunities such as creating ‘robot operators’ for various issues related to employment and employment caused by the new coronavirus infection and social issues, such as employment problems for young people, contributes to solving the problems faced by Japanese companies and society.
“Iris Ohyama has been selling infectious disease control products such as masks and AI thermal cameras to support with corona,” said Akihiro Ohyama, president and CEO of Iris Ohyama. “Under such circumstances, in order to promote non-contact, we will collaborate with SoftBank Robotics Group Corp. and provide robot solutions through the joint venture company to be established this time. Looking at the after-corona, we will promptly tackle social issues such as ‘labor shortage’ and ’employment problems’ and contribute to the realization of a sustainable society. In addition, we will utilize the know-how cultivated in Japan to expand our business globally, aiming for a cumulative total of 100 billion yen by 2025.
“With the urgent need to realize a new normal in the corona wreck, various new expectations are being placed on robots,” said Fumihide Tomizawa, president and CEO of SoftBank Robotics Group. “This strong partnership with Iris Ohyama is a huge step forward for the expansion and penetration of robot solutions. Taking full advantage of the strengths of both companies, we will respond quickly to the challenges facing society.”
Softbank’s evolving robotics strategy
Forming Iris Robotics is yet another step by Softbank to re-tool its robotics strategy. Of course, last month it sold 80% of its share in Boston Dynamics to Hyundai for nearly $1 billion. A Softbank affiliate retained the other 20% ownership stake in Boston Dynamics.
But Softbank’s robotics shift started well before that. It has recently downplayed its Pepper humanoid robot in favor of robots that have more practical applications, including Whiz. It launched Whiz in late 2018 as renewals of Pepper reportedly were lagging. According to a Nikkei Tech survey at the time, only 15% of companies planned to renew their three-year contract for Pepper. This was certainly a humbling sign for the Japanese conglomerate.
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 also an investor in Bear Robotics.
And in late 2020, Softbank joined the SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) craze. It is raising $525 million in a blind pool SPAC for investments in artificial intelligence.
SoftBank Chief Executive Masayoshi Son is an outspoken believer in the Singularity. When launching his own venture capital fund in 2018, Son declared, “I am devoting 97% of my time and brain on AI.”
Editor’s Note: This story is developing. We have reached out to Softbank Robotics for more information, but have yet to hear back. This story will be updated if we learn more information. This article was updated at 12:09 PM Eastern with Iris Robotics product information and the Iris Ohyama press release.