“My goal is to automate warehouses in America and make a lot of success stories there,” said Diankov. “But will people value that, and are there enough people with expertise to do it? That’s why we started in Japan.”
Mujin’s plan is to move away from customization for every client and standardize a complete automation package.
“Unfortunately, just having a robot system work perfectly is not enough, and we need to have the equipment and system around the robot to finally allow it to contribute to the operations of the business,” said Diankov. “Once there are enough solid standardized components for warehouse automation, we can focus our energies to quickly deploy and perfect them.”
Born in Bulgaria, Diankov moved to the United States at age 10 and studied robot engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned a Ph.D. After stints at seminal California robotics start-up Willow Garage and the University of Tokyo’s JSK Robotics Lab, he founded Mujin in 2011 with CEO Issei Takino.
Staffed by about 70 people, including many non-Japanese, the start-up is headquartered in a working class district on the eastern side of Tokyo. While preaching the value of automation at trade shows, the company reminds people that the number of workers in Japan is dropping by 2,125 per day, due to the country’s low birthrate and aging population.
“In the U.S., robot technology is often undervalued and directly compared to the value of human workers,” said Diankov. “If you’re going to be competing with that from day one, maybe you have no room to grow quickly. In Japan they have a mindset that values robotics much more, even if it sometimes doesn’t make economic sense. They’re willing to jump into investments into robotics.”
Diankov believes fears of robots taking jobs from people don’t reflect the reality of the workplace.