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HOME > No.29, May 2022 > Feature Story : Systems Engineering to Enhance the Performance of Industrial Machines and Robots

Systems Engineering to Enhance the Performance of Industrial Machines and Robots

Naoki Uchiyama

Naoki Uchiyama

Professor Naoki Uchiyama's Systems Engineering Laboratory conducts research that can benefit industry, with a focus on sites. Amidst the growing labor shortages that sites are facing, Professor Uchiyama’s Laboratory focuses mainly on working towards optimizing controls and improving efficiency and automation in the mechanical systems of industrial machines and robots . I spoke with Professor Uchiyama about how he connects his work to external organizations, for instance through his Collaborative Research Laboratory that aims to incorporate both research and education.

Interview and report by Madoka Tainaka

Academia that solves problems at sites

The word "system" means all component factors that collectively interact with and affect each other within a mechanism, but the term is used in a variety of situations, so many people might assume that the word is not well defined. Naturally, the scope of system engineering is incredibly vast. Beginning with machines and electricity that form the foundation of mechanical engineering, Professor Uchiyama utilizes a vast range of lateral fields like information, management, and construction to describe system engineering as an academic pursuit that aims to optimize all those fields.

"Essentially, we attempt to understand a real-life phenomenon, create mathematical models, then work to optimize and control that phenomenon. Because we're looking to optimize the issue or problem we've been given, some people may consider the field to be lacking in direction. However, from the perspective of taking the approach that leads from the problem to the solution, I would say that this academic pursuit is very close to how society works."

Collaboration with companies that operate manufacturing sites is indispensable when carrying out research that works backwards from a problem. The laboratory has always carried out joint research with multiple companies, but in 2019, Toyohashi University of Technology offered their first "Collaborative Research Laboratory." It partnered with Kobelco Construction Machinery, a company involved in the development, production, and sales of backhoes and crawler cranes, to develop next-generation cranes.

"Because it was established with funding from an external organization facing the same problems we encounter here at the university, the Collaborative Research Laboratory not only conducts research, but also confers degrees to students. That is to say, it works to develop human resources.

The Collaborative Research Laboratory is funded by external organisations, such as companies, that share a common agenda with the university. In normal joint research, the main focus is on research, and in the case of endowed laboratories, the benefits to the company are not clear, as in principle the intellectual property gained from the research basically belongs to the university. In comparison, the Collaborative Research Laboratory is an excellent initiative that enables both companies and universities to enhance both intellectual property and human capital. In fact, some of our PhD students are currently conducting research under this collaboration.

Transporting suspended loads in the shortest possible time while controlling sway

Crawler crane and tower boom-twist (left).  Comparative experimental results with an elastic crane (right).
Crawler crane and tower boom-twist (left). Comparative experimental results with an elastic crane (right).

Professor Uchiyama and his group are working on a Collaborative Research Laboratory with Kobelco to control swaying in giant cranes.* When working with giant cranes that have 80 m long cables, even a slight swing of the tip of the crane could result danger from causing the suspended load to sway significantly. That's why they are looking for ways to transport suspended loads in the shortest time possible, and with minimum sway.

Professor Uchiyama said, "Tackling vibration has been a persistent issue for factories and large-scale construction sites. We've created some methods and theories to address that, but these sites still face numerous issues. And with the giant cranes used at outside construction sites, the environment changes each time. Right now, crane operators carefully watch loads and rely on their experience and intuition to operate cranes, but if we can use software to control safety and efficiency, then even inexperienced people could operate cranes and that would help address the labor shortage."

They have already achieved some results. Each part of a giant crane is transported individually and assembled on site, so they are made of lightweight materials to reduce load during transportation. This means, however, that the main frame shakes easily when the crane is moving, which makes it difficult to control sway in the load. To address this, Professor Uchiyama and his team developed a software program that will optimize the crane’s ability to move as swiftly as possible within the limitations set by the need to control speed with regard to vibration periods and to accelerate smoothly to minimize contortions in the crane body.

Optimal motion trajectory of an experimental automated crane in TUT

"Eliminating sway at the destination point is particularly important for safety, but we also had to consider the maximum performance capabilities of the hydraulic motors that move the crane. We input these factors and used our formula to determine the shortest time and smallest amount of sway. We then reproduced the distortion and load sway in a 2 meter crane and verified our results in an experiment. We also tried this in an experimental capacity with a giant crane and obtained a response that we think can be used at construction sites. Our next step is to develop an interface that considers operability on the company side.

Professor Uchiyama’s team are not contenting themselves with only trying to optimize time efficiency however. They are also taking on the challenge of how to move the crane with the least amount of energy while using friction during deceleration and minimising vibration.Doing so would enable them to contribute to increasing energy efficiency.

* The "KOBELCO CONSTRUCTION MACHINERY ADVANCED CRANE LABORATORY" also conducts research in different laboratories within the university for environmental recognition and feedback control using other image processing methods.

Working towards automation to address labor shortages

He is also working on automation. This came about because construction companies are facing such a shortage of labor that they are almost at the point of asking manufacturers to supply experienced operators when purchasing industrial machines.

"Automation will be mandatory in the future, but fully automating something like a giant crane operating outside will be difficult because of the real-time sensing and feedback to account for the effects of wind and other factors. Therefore, I want to only automate simple tasks and rely on humans for complex operations in accordance with vehicle autonomy Level 2, and then gradually build upon that."

In addition to that goal and the Collaborative Research Laboratory, he is also working with the metal recycling business ToyoMetal (Toyohashi) and the construction equipment rental business Rentec Daikei (Toyohashi) to conduct experiments on using large-scale equipment to automatically transfer accumulated metal recycling materials to containers or other locations.

Automatic recognition and transportation of material for recycle (2x speed)

"This uses image processing to detect the edges of the material based on colour change, recognize it as a single item, and then retrieve it with heavy machinery. We've had some successes in site tests and are currently conducting research that could be applied to actual job sites.

Accelerating processes like these could eventually simplify operation to the extent that it could be managed by unskilled operators, or even by older people who might work from home for a few hours at a time."

A double degree program in collaboration with the University of Stuttgart

The actual joint research field work is carried out by master's students, doctoral students, and foreign postdoctoral researchers, and it is essential for these human resources to collaborate with foreign educational institutions as well as the joint research companies.

"The University established a master's double degree program with the University of Stuttgart in Germany. In this program, students study for one year in Toyohashi and one year in Stuttgart and earn credits from both institutions. The students from Stuttgart tend to have a better grounding in basic math and physics, while the students from Toyohashi tend to be adept at conducting experiments and programming. The students inspire each other when they visit each other's countries and collaborate on research."

The programs were carried out remotely while COVID-19 prevented international travel. The postdoctoral researchers who take part in Collaborative Research Laboratory also come from Egypt, Indonesia, and a variety of other countries. Studying in such a cosmopolitan laboratory will be of great use to them after they enter the workforce.

Talking of his future plans, Professor Uchiyama explained that "Our work does not always produce ground-breaking knowledge, but we do make things that help factories right away. Of course, I also hope that we establish theories for control and optimization. I want to keep working toward research that is theoretically guaranteed and beneficial to society."


Hideki Takahashi, Abdallah Farrage, Kenichi Terauchi, Shintaro Sasai, Hitoshi Sakurai, Masaki Okubo, Naoki Uchiyama, "Sensor-less and time-optimal control for load-sway and boom-twist suppression using boom horizontal motion of large cranes," Automation in Construction,2022, Volume 134.

M. S. Finkbeiner, N. Uchiyama and O. Sawodny, "Shape Recognition of Material Heaps in Outdoor Environments and Optimal Excavation Planning," 2019 International Electronics Symposium (IES), 2019, pp. 58-62

Reporter's Note

Professor Uchiyama's parents operate a factory that produces automobile parts. Thinking that he might continue the family business, he entered the Shizuoka University Faculty of Engineering through the National Institute of Technology, Numazu College. He eventually discovered an interest in research, earning his PhD at Tokyo Metropolitan University where a teacher of his transferred to, and has been teaching at TUT since 1995. His younger brother currently manages the family business.

The family business faced financial difficulties while he was a student and so he worked a variety of part-time jobs to save money for school and pay for his daily expenses.

"Honestly, back then I sometimes felt that I was wasting my time working at those part-time jobs." Professor Uchiyama says with a wry laugh. However, working at the family business and the part-time jobs taught him about real working conditions on factory floors, and that has helped him with his current research. We hope that he will continue to play an even more active role as a bridge between the university and industry.

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Researcher Profile

Naoki Uchiyama

Naoki Uchiyama

Naoki Uchiyama received PhD degree from Tokyo Metropolitan University in 1995. He started his career as a research associate at Toyohashi University of Technology, had been involved in systems engineering, control engineering, and mechatronics. He has been worked as a professor since 2015.

Reporter Profile

Madoka Tainaka

Madoka Tainaka
Editor and writer. Former committee member on the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Council for Science and Technology, Information Science Technology Committee and editor at NII Today, a publication from the National Institute of Informatics. She interviews researchers at universities and businesses, produces content for executives, and also plans, edits, and writes books.