My Purpose: To create beautiful designs out of trial and error My Purpose: To Bequeath Techniques
Voices 2024.02.05

Beauty for Industrial robots. A determined industrial designer with love for legacies.

  • #My "Changes for the Better"
  • #Design
  • #Laboratory
  • #Interview

Due to social conditions such as declining birthrates, aging populations, and technological advances, automation in the form of human-robot cooperation and coexistence is advancing today.
There are high expectations for industrial robots that can perform detailed and complex tasks that cannot be done by humans. Ian Random, an industrial designer from the United States, designs robots in collaboration with engineers. What does he value in design, and where does the tradition and legacy he inherited while working for a Japanese company lead him?

An experience to provide product designs for US Military

Mitsubishi Electric has employees not only from Japan, but also from all over the world. One of them, Ian - who works as an industrial designer - is from the United States. After studying art at an American university and working for American companies, he was recruited and joined Mitsubishi Electric. He recalls his memories of coming to Japan about 10 years ago, when he had almost no knowledge of Japan.

‘What I knew about Japan before coming here was mostly from the film, ‘Tokyo Drift’, or from some Japanese animation. I didn’t even know about having to take off my shoes when entering a house! I entered with my shoes on, and was told, ‘No, no.’ But now I am so used to this country; can’t even think about going back. I love it here very much.’

What company did he work for prior to coming to Japan?

‘An American company, known as a toolmaker for carpenters in Japan. I used to work there as an industrial designer, making products for the US military. Orders from the US military require the best quality, no matter how much it costs; that was fun to do.’

Robots with 0.0001-millimeter accuracy, beyond humans’ ability

Mr. Random checks a test model made by 3D printer.

Mr. Random designs and studies industrial robots and machines for Mitsubishi Electric, and also researches for future factory technology. Designing robots is about 80% of his job.

‘When I introduce myself as a robot maker, I always get, "Like Gundam?" Unlike them, however, I make EDM (Electrical Discharge Machines)... a huge robot that cuts materials by the heat of discharging, for example. This machine can cut or make a hole with 0.0001-milimeter accuracy on silicon, metal, or computer chips. That is just one example - each client makes different requests for durability or speed, so it is my job to fulfill their orders in robot design.’

What is the actual work of industrial design like, and what people does he work with?

As a design process of a project, I make numerous sketches, day in and day out. Then I draw a blueprint by CAD on a tablet, and have a 3D printer generate a model. Engineers are important partners for us designers.’

In cooperation with reliable and determined engineers

Robot engineers take a rational view of how a robot can function, and maximize its specifications. As a result, function often takes precedence over the beauty of the design. For Ian, engineers are sometimes reliable partners as well as difficult debaters.

‘Since I am not an artist I cannot insist on my designs, but I want to make them as beautiful as possible. When I think that a design without any bolt holes is beautiful, engineers think, ‘Bolt holes are practical for maintenance; thus, they make a better design.’ There is a mountain of 'robot design', but while we have the same purpose, we often take different approaches. We need to discuss things many times to agree on the best work.’

Combining different points of view leads to better products. What communication does he have with engineers?

‘Using the previous example, a single bolt hole could ruin the whole design; a one-degree angle change could make the overall shape and function different. Even tiny differences can impact the whole product and design; I cannot easily give up on what I strongly believe in. Then I discuss things with the engineers until we can find what we both think is best.’

To bequeath the legacy that we have diligently constructed

Mr. Random goes through materials for design.

A surprising answer to the question, ‘What is a necessary factor for a good industrial robot?’

‘There are a variety of important factors, such as cost, safety, performance, and the famous phrase, "Form Follows Function." But branding is also important as a company. When I entered Mitsubishi Electric, I studied their archives of robot design. I discovered the design lines which make Mitsubishi Electric – Mitsubishi Electric, and combined it with new designs. If the legacy that the designers have left behind survives through numerous generations, then that turns into credibility. I sometimes see copied products of industrial robots, but credibility cannot stand without history and branding.’

The "lifetime employment" culture of Japan, although disappearing, seems to be helping Mr. Random.

‘There are employees of Mitsubishi Electric who have been working since the time I was born. When I want to know something about an old robot design, I can talk to the person who designed it. Also, it is said, "To release a poorly designed product is worse than wasting time." If you cannot come up with the best, you must spend more time for improvement - this is what I have been taught.’

"People-friendly" - A new factor

What is the difference between Mitsubishi Electric and other companies - and what is the work philosophy in Japan compared with other countries - from the viewpoint of a foreigner in Japan?

The work/life balance, first of all. Americans don’t usually overwork. Many Japanese do, but recently, Mitsubishi Electric has been changing. In my case, I don’t stay at the office late; I’d rather just come in early in the morning and finish up my tasks.’

He told us more about the differences between Mitsubishi Electric and other companies.

‘Since there naturally are different demands, I used to design powerful, strong power tools in an American company. But when I designed a robot called "ASSISTA" in one Mitsubishi Electric project - a robot which works with people - the design theme was, "How much softer can it be for people?". The shape was round and without any edges so that no one would get hurt, and there were no slits so that no one would get their fingers pinched. It was difficult but also meaningful to make designs with mechanical benefits which also displayed a concern for the safety of the users.’

My Purpose is to - through trial and error - create beautiful designs.

Mr. Random always handles 2 to 3 projects at a time and deals successfully with them by employing his multitasking skills. ‘What is his heart for his job - what is his Purpose?’

I don’t have many chances to see how my robots actually work, but when I dropped by one factory, I realized that half of the robots there were the ones I designed; I felt very proud. Even after trial and error, spending a lot of time on things doesn’t always lead me to an actual product. But some designs do come to life, and are manufactured and used as a product in factories in various countries. That gives me a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

Mr. Random has confidence and pride in designing robots. The size of the company enhances his motivation.

‘I used to make drones in university; I have something in me that drives me to create. I am happy that I can fulfill that desire through this company. It is my pleasure that my works contribute to both the world and society, through the worldwide company called, "Mitsubishi Electric." And the good that I contribute will one day come around to me as well. If I can make my family happy here in Japan with my job, what could be better?’

Ian Random


A member of Mitsubishi Electric Integrated Design CenterIan Random

From Georgia, USA
Graduated from a university in Ohio, worked as an industrial designer, and entered Mitsubishi Electric in Japan in 2014.
Loves the lamb BBQ restaurant located near the office.

Written by Our Stories Editing Team

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