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The Robot A-Z

by Geoff Manaugh ( last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:46 AM
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by Geoff Manaugh ( last modified Nov 29, 2010



[Image: The yellow chipboards of the Fanuc global headquarters; courtesy of Fanuc].

On the flight back to Los Angeles yesterday I read about the corporate campus of Fanuc, "a secretive maker of robots and industrial automation gear," according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

"Some 60 percent of the world's precision machine tools use Fanuc's controls," the article explains, "which give lathes, grinders, and milling machines the agility to turn metal into just about any manufactured product." As if suggesting a future art installation by Jeff Koons—sponsored by Boeing—we read about a man who uses "a milling machine with Fanuc controls to sculpt 747 parts." (The company's robot A-Z shows off their other goods).

[Image: Assembly robots by Fanuc].

But it's the description of the firm's actual facilities that caught my eye. "Fanuc's headquarters, a sprawling complex in a forest on the slopes of Mount Fuji, looks like something out of a sci-fi flick":
    Workers in yellow jumpsuits with badges on their shoulders trot among yellow buildings as yellow cars hum along pine-lined roads. Fanuc lore holds that the founder, Seiuemon Inaba, believed yellow "promotes clear thinking."Inside the compound's windowless factories, an army of (yes, yellow) robots works 24/7. "On a factory floor as big as a football field you might see four people. It's basically just robots reproducing themselves."
Thing is, if you want to see more—to see this strange origin-site for contemporary intelligent machines—you can't. "Outsiders are rarely allowed inside the facility, and workers not engaged in research are barred from labs," Businessweek adds. "'I can't even get in,' quips a board member who asks that his name not be used."

In a way, I'm reminded of South Korea's plans for its own "Robot Land," an "industrial city built specifically for the robotics industry," that will have "all sorts of facilities for the research, development, and production of robots, as well as things like exhibition halls and even a stadium for robot-on-robot competitions."

Here, though, alone amidst other versions of themselves in the pines of Mt. Fuji, "the world's most reliable robots" take shape in secret, shelled in yellow, reproducing themselves, forming a robot city of their own.




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