What do you envision when you hear “the world of the future?”
Perhaps what comes to mind is cars flying between buildings and a cityscape where robots and humans coexist. While flying cars have yet to become a reality, robots may become more common in the city in the next few years.
Since 2018, Mitsubishi Estate has introduced robots to manage buildings around the country, beginning with Marunouchi area. Introductions and experiments are being advanced in various fields such as security, cleaning, and transportation, and it seems that knowledge and data are steadily increasing.
I asked the person responsible for this movement—Mr. Shibuya Ichitaro, Manager of DX Promotion Department and Building Management Department in Mitsubishi Estate—about the background behind and future visions for the use of robots.
・The impetus for introducing robots is the lack of manpower. Aiming to improve services using robots
・“Continuing to answer the doubt of ‘not knowing what I can do’ until someone says, ‘I will master this’”
・Expanding win-win relationships in the future, making Marunouchi “an area where robots and humans coexist”
Manager of DX Promotion Department and Building Management Department
Joined the company in 2003. After working in the Legal Department—and overseeing the development of condominiums in Kobe and the leasing of Grand Front Osaka etc., since 2013—considering the current manpower shortage, he was in charge of building next-generation facility operation management models using cutting-edge technology and robots as part of the Building Management Division. In his current position, he has been focusing on promoting further digital transformation including cross-division Raas since April 2019.
The impetus for introducing robots is the lack of manpower. Aiming to improve services using robots
— Compared to manufacturing sites such as factories and distribution warehouses, using robots in building management seems to be unprecedented, so what is the background behind introducing them?
Shibuya: Our company manages not only office buildings, but also various forms of real estate such as airports, hotels, and outlet malls. The total area that needs managing is increasing annually due to new developments, so it was expected that current management styles that relied on humans could satisfy construction needs.
Although subcontracting companies have helped with security and cleaning, along with the emergence of labor shortages, an increasing number of voices say current prices cannot be maintained and indicate that continuing operations will be difficult, since the people aren’t there in the first place. Therefore, we began to discuss countermeasures internally.
Under such circumstances, we swiftly began introducing robots with the aim of solving these problems and improving management efficiency in future. For example, in security, robots can manage patrolling and standing guard, eliminating the need for humans. Thus far, there have been efforts to reduce labor using surveillance cameras, but some areas cannot be monitored, such as blind spots, and it is no small equipment burden to increase the number of cameras. I thought it would be possible to reduce the burden of on-site security guards if robots were able to cover those areas. Therefore, people would only need to get there quickly in case of an emergency.
— To what extent have robots been adopted today?
Shibuya: Currently, proof-of-concept tests for the introduction of robots are underway in cleaning, security, and transportation fields.
For cleaning robots, Softbank Robotics’ “Whiz” is being introduced to many facilities nationwide, including office buildings, commercial facilities, airports, and hotels. For security robots, SEQSENSE’s “SQ-2“—which has been supplied with management knowledge from the early developmental stages—had its national introduction at the end of August this year at the headquarters in Otemachi Park Building. As for transportation robots, we are testing and introducing various robots, exploring advanced robots from overseas manufacturers, introducing the “EffiBOT” that follows people into commercial facilities, and conducting demonstrations in Japan for the first time with “Marble,” which can move inside and outside buildings.
Since many cases of robot use happens outside of business hours or in back rooms of facilities, it will be a while before people using these facilities will get to see the robots. However, from now on, there will likely be increased opportunities to see them during the day when their number and types are increased.
— SQ-2 was placed on the first floor of the building, right? What kind of functions does it have?
Shibuya: Instead of a daytime security guard, SQ-2 monitors the inside of the building with an installed camera, periodically responding to inquiries from passersby via a built-in microphone and speaker. At night, it automatically patrols surveillance points during set hours and moves autonomously while avoiding obstacles using a unique 3D sensor. While other autonomous robots might need to be in contact with the facility itself, or require guiding tape on the ceilings and floors, that is not necessary with SQ-2. Various considerations have been made for safety, and the center of gravity is designed to prevent it from falling over easily, even if an adult bumps into it. It can also continuously monitor its surroundings to avoid obstructing passersby while moving up and down the corridors.
— According to you, various robots have been introduced. What was the criteria for choosing them?
Shibuya: The most important criterion was whether it could safely complete the work we needed it to do. Another important point was whether we could use it without having to learn difficult procedures.
Since there are many kinds, we actually touched and operated the robots and listened to problems on the ground. In this way, we frequently continue to test how they are used.
Furthermore, this project has other aims besides efficiency and cost savings. such as data usage. Robots can collect various data during their operation. If this is analyzed with AI, it could be applied to customer service, building management, and service improvements. There is also the possibility of providing new services in the entire installation area by combining image authentication technology to improve operational levels or with robots moving autonomously between buildings and the outdoors.
In this way, because these measures are not just beneficial for our company but also for the revitalization of the entire area, there are cases where experiments are being conducted throughout the area involving stakeholders. We are also receiving support from the government. In cases where related parties are included, we also do our best to explain the steps in visions such as this.
Continuing to answer the doubt of “not knowing what I can do,” until someone says, “I will master this”
— The use of robots is still a new field, so there must have been a great deal of trouble when it came to introducing them.
Shibuya：Indeed, it’s still non-stop hard work, and it’s not just about selecting robots. However, because there are many cases where current tasks have to be reconfigured, on this point, it persists in our continued dialogue with various people in the field.
Some robots cost millions of yen, and from a short-term perspective, there are also those who say it’s cheaper for people to handle these tasks. However, in a situation where human resources are clearly becoming scarce, if we are able to take a long-term perspective at an early stage, adopt new measures, and construct new management methods, I believe results will surely emerge. So, I’m spending time persuading the people concerned.
When actually introducing robots, there were concerns from administrators, such as “I don’t know what they can do” and “what happens if there’s a problem concerning safety?” AI carefully explained that “robots are excellent at repeating the same tasks with the same quality. By leaving those tasks to the robots, humans are able to focus on areas they should be focusing on.” Moreover, if you let them see the robots’ movements, many cases will say “since it’s safe, let’s use them.” Since actually seeing and touching the robots helps ease their concerns, I think this is an advantage [of robots].
— In terms of security and cleaning, has there been a backlash from people in the field?
Shibuya: Of course. I would be lying if I said there wasn’t. It seems there’s some resistance from older people, in particular, and I’ve heard things like, “I’m not good with machines, so I don’t know if I can handle it well.” However, because it’s not necessarily the on-site people who must operate the robots, their anxieties are often relieved by carefully explaining the necessary procedures. Conversely, there were even those who became curious and took on an almost craftsman-like approach saying, “I will use the robot well.” In the end, it was mostly anxiety over the unknown.
Factors that hindered the introduction of robots included the mindsets of those on the implementation side and the upfront burdens. However, by removing those, operational workloads can be reduced, and if you use robots well, there are also cost benefits. Therefore, by creating a sense of “let’s try using this” and fostering a common understanding, we gradually introduced robots to the company.
— Earlier, you mentioned that you were conducting demonstrations and experiments in the entire area. There are many stakeholders in the Marunouchi area, so what did you keep in mind to achieve a smooth consensus?
Shibuya: After understanding that each stakeholder would have a different perspective, I took care to clarify their positions. Whether it was safety, cost reduction, or creating excitement in their businesses, there were many objectives, but it was important not to impose these judgments on them. When we were able to explain how “such efforts could potentially be a win-win,” it went smoothly. Building owners often have the same worries as we do, such as “it could reduce the number of surveillance cameras” or “this might relate to improving services for tenants,” so we also explained our commitment on wishing to provide such solutions to external parties in the future.
Of course, we also think that making the effort on our part is important. Firstly, we used our own fields to verify safety and examine the reconfigurations of tasks. Sometimes, we even brought the robots along by ourselves to explain until they were satisfied. We were often able to reach a consensus because our determination was clear—we were willing to go to those lengths.
Expanding win-win relationships in the future, making Marunouchi “an area where robots and humans coexist”
— Please tell us about your vision for the future.
Shibuya: This has been the goal from the start of the project, but I would like to expand its potential as a business. I do not simply aim to solve short-term immediate challenges, but also include the provision of solutions to external customers. We have a place that is suitable for actual implementation, and we have conducted trial and error experiments in advance using the robots. That may be our strength.
As I mentioned earlier, we are also considering the use of data, and we would like to use it as a model case for facility management and service improvement by using multiple kinds of robots at facilities of various asset types. We have already begun to receive requests for development cooperation and consulting for facility management, so this project has no shortage of difficulties. However, I think there is a large significance in tackling this.
We are receiving inquiries not only from companies but also universities. We have vast tracts of land, and because it’s private property, there are few regulations. Since it will also be beneficial for education, it’s a place where it’s easy to conduct proof-of-concept tests. Government agencies are pushing such efforts, so this may be promoted through collaborations between industry, government, and academia in the future.
— It seems like there will be increased opportunities to see robots in various areas in future. Incidentally, I hear that you will be exhibiting at CEATEC, but what do you think of “Society 5.0”? I hear that in the world of Society 5.0, “everything will be connected to cyberspace, and reality will be expanded through devices.”
Shibuya: Naturally, we are aware of Society 5.0. At the end of the day, it’s not solely about buildings but a question of how advanced technologies, including robots, will be used across the area and city—including not only robotics but also advanced communications and other digital technologies.
Through combining technologies, you can realize various images of the future. We are currently conducting proof-of-concept tests centering on the Marunouchi area, but it would be nice if we could become an open innovation field that could contribute to many near-future model cases through cooperation with local and national governments.
Today, robots are primarily handling cleaning and security, but in the future, I think they will also be able to participate in short-distance delivery and deliveries. While various inspections have already been made on the concurrent use of robots and building facilities, such as elevators, autonomous robot movement outdoors is improving daily. If the legal hurdles can be cleared, there are various ways area logistics can be left to robots, such as carrying purchased products to specified areas.
Mitsubishi Estate’s proactive approach to robots has led to proposals and information on advanced technologies not limited to robots from various people, and I feel that a world where new values can be provided using these advanced technologies in an integrated way is not far away.
In the future, as labor shortages become more serious, it will be a challenge to see how to use technological advancements. Therefore, we will continue to make steady efforts in cooperating with people with the same ethos. In the year 2027, with the completion of the Tokyo Station Tokiwabashi Project—which includes Japan’s tallest tower at 390 m—I hope we will be able to create a city where you can experience a new world perspective.
・The background to introducing robots is “labor shortages” and “aiming to improve services through robots.”
・Autonomous robots have also arrived and are actively being used in the field
・When involving various related companies, it is necessary to listen to their concerns and provide careful explanations.
・There have been inquiries from universities and government agencies, and we are aiming for further advancements through collaborations between industry, government, and academia.
・In the future, it is expected that the Marunouchi area will see the use of robots across the entire area, with many robots coming and going.