There was only one job that robots could not do when Fast Retailing, the owner of Uniqlo, replaced 90 per cent of its workers with robots at its flagship warehouse in Tokyo last year.
But now, with the help of a Japanese start-up called Mujin, the world’s third-largest retailer says it has cracked the final barrier to full automation, a priority for Uniqlo as Japan’s ageing population creates labour shortages.
The two companies have invented a robot with two arms that can pick up soft T-shirts and place them neatly in boxes to be shipped to customers.
While it sounds easy, the ability to lift and fold soft textiles has been a challenge for clumsy robotic arms. Add to this the need to sort through constantly changing seasonal clothes, in shades that are hard to distinguish and wrapped in various forms of packaging, and humans have always come out on top.
Even the most aggressive believers in automation, such as Amazon, still depend on human “pickers”.
“We’ve been putting off working with an apparel company because it’s so difficult,” said Issei Takino, co-founder and chief executive of Mujin. “But Fast Retailing’s strength is its ability to overhaul its entire supply chain to make it fit for automation. If we’re going to take on this challenge, we had to do it with Fast Retailing.”
Founded in 2011, Mujin develops robot motion and vision systems, such as 3D cameras. After human operators set up a machine with Mujin controllers, it can see and move without having to be repeatedly programmed.
For Fast Retailing, which sells 1.3bn items of clothing a year, the need for automation is urgent, given a shortage of workers and rising storage costs.
“It’s becoming extremely difficult to hire workers, and it’s a lot more than people think,” said Takuya Jimbo, a Fast Retailing executive in charge of changing the supply chain. “We have to be the frontrunner and continue trial and error because only the companies that can update their business models can survive.”
The jointly developed robot, which was made by Yaskawa Electric, is already operating in Fast Retailing’s main warehouse in Tokyo, but Mr Takino admitted that it is not able to handle all the facility’s products, and that it needs further development.
For instance the plastic packaging of the thermal underwear in Uniqlo’s Heattech line is relatively simple for the robots to pick up, but this could become more difficult as Fast Retailing looks to switch to more eco-friendly paper bags.
The robots are able to pick up belts but these typically become unbundled as they are dropped into boxes. One solution would be for Fast Retailing to ensure that belts are sold in bundled forms.
On fears that robots will steal human jobs, Mr Takino said: “In the case of warehouses, there are no humans to steal the jobs from because the workers just aren’t there.”