Located 90 minutes west of Tokyo in the shadow of Mount Fuji, Oshino, Japan, is home to 9,000 people—which means that in any given year, the robots produced at the town’s FANUC plant outnumber humans by roughly seven to one. But as for how many humans it takes to construct those 5,000 banana-colored robots a month, don’t bother counting: The robots build themselves, test themselves and inspect themselves.
A generation ago, many people—including manufacturing executives themselves—would’ve considered such a facility as either science fiction or centuries away. To be certain, FANUC’s complex of 22 sub-factories is one of a kind. It’s one of the world’s first “lights-out factories”—where 24/7 operation is a reality and intelligent robots create computerized offspring capable, just like them, of machine learning and computer vision. But it proves just how far artificial intelligence (AI) has come in the manufacturing process.
In fact, artificial intelligence has brought us into a new dimension that extends beyond the walls of the FANUC plant. While robots have occupied the factory floor for some time, today’s robots no longer perform monotonous, mechanical tasks. They are smart participants in Industry 4.0: at its core, the linking of the real-life factory with virtual reality.