SoftBank slashes jobs at global robotics business

SoftBank Group is slashing jobs at its global robotics business and has stopped producing its Pepper robot, Reuters reported.
SoftBank JapanProduction of the humanoid Pepper, touted as the first robot with “a heart”, was stopped last year. It would be costly to restart production.

Built by Foxconn in China, Pepper was meant to help plug labour shortages but struggled to find a global customer base. Only 27,000 were produced.

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. SoftBank in 2012 acquired French robotics firm Aldebaran.

Half of the staff has been cut from smaller sales operations in the United States and Britain, with employees in Japan redeployed from the robotics business.

In France, negotiations on layoffs are ongoing with final numbers not decided, a SoftBank spokesperson said. Staff have been laid off in the U.S. and UK and redeployed in Japan, the spokesperson said, declining to provide further deals.

SoftBank will continue to make significant investments in next-generation robots to serve our customers and partners, the French robotics business said in a statement.

The job cuts in France were first reported by French business website Le Journal du Net. The broader restructuring is reported by Reuters for the first time.

SoftBank Robotics launched the chest-high Pepper in 2014 and it became the face of the conglomerate, embodying Son’s optimistic vision of a technology-powered future as he built his overseas investing operations.

SoftBank, which propped up Pepper sales by placing the robot in its mobile phone stores, has shifted focus to products such as cleaning robot Whiz. The French business was increasingly sidelined.

The conglomerate has been selling assets including the majority of its stake in robotics firm Boston Dynamics as Son focuses more on investing through the Vision Fund.

SoftBank retains exposure to robotics and automation technology, owning SB Logistics and with stakes in robotics firm Berkshire Grey and warehouse robotics firm AutoStore.