Internal documents reviewed by the global news firm state that production of Pepper robot was stopped last year, and that, financially, it wouldn’t make sense for the company to stop and restart production in a short period of time. By all accounts, this looks like the end of the company’s famous flagship robot.
The move comes amid a series of job cuts for SoftBank’s robotics business, first reported by French business website Le Journal du Net, with reported losses of €100 million (approx. $119 million) over a three-year period.
Pepper robot was introduced to the world in 2014 and was seen by many as a symbol for the positive impact technology can have on our lives.
The humanoid machine was originally designed to guide people at conferences, help customers at stores, and babysit, amongst a large number of other roles, including as a robotics research platform.
Described at launch as the “first robot with a heart,” Pepper robot was designed to be aesthetically pleasing and cute so as to win over humans skeptical of robots in the workforce.
Built by Foxconn in China, the manufacturing giant also responsible for the iPhone, Pepper robot never quite reached the potential SoftBank had hoped. According to one of Reuters’ sources, the company only produced 27,000 of the robot units before halting production.
SoftBank to continue investing in next-gen robots
As part of its plans to slow down its robotics business, SoftBank will also cut 330 staff positions in France in September — SoftBank’s robotics business was originally started in 2012, when the company acquired French robotics firm Aldebaran.
In a statement, SoftBank said that, despite the cuts, it “will continue to make significant investments in next-generation robots to serve our customers and partners.”
An unhappy work relationship?
Several outlets, including The Japan Times, point towards an unhappy working relationship between SoftBank’s French business and Tokyo management, as well as limited functionality for Pepper leading to poor sales.
This resulted in SoftBank shifting its focus towards other products, including its cleaning robot Whiz, with the French business increasingly kept out of the loop.
The halt on Pepper robot production and job cuts in its robotics business doesn’t mean that SoftBank is turning its back on robotics: The multinational conglomerate will now reportedly focus on investing in new technologies via its Vision Fund, the world’s largest technology-focused venture fund, with over $100 billion in capital.
The pullback reflects the fading of Chief Executive Masayoshi Son’s plan to make SoftBank the leader in the robotics industry, producing human-like machines that could serve customers and babysit kids.
As part of the retrenchment, SoftBank plans to eliminate about half of its 330 staff positions in France in September, according to four sources and documents, cutting into the historical heart of the business, whose origins lie in SoftBank’s 2012 acquisition of French robotics firm Aldebaran.
Half of the staff has already been cut from smaller sales operations in the United States and Britain, three of the sources said, with employees in Japan redeployed from the robotics business. All the sources declined to be named as they are not permitted to speak to the media.