'Robotics revolution' picks up steam in Japan workplaces

Robots pick items to place on conveyors for sorting at a centre operated by Toho. By 2025, robots could shave off 25 per cent of factory labour costs in Japan, according to Boston Consulting Group.
Robots pick items to place on conveyors for sorting at a centre operated by Toho. By 2025, robots could shave off 25 per cent of factory labour costs in Japan, according to Boston Consulting Group.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Use of intelligent machines in various sectors set to accelerate with Abe govt's 5-year push

TOKYO • The rise of the machines in the workplace has experts in the United States and Europe predicting massive unemployment and tumbling wages.

Not in Japan, where robots are welcomed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government as an elegant way to handle the country's ageing populace, shrinking workforce and public aversion to immigration.

Japan is already a robotics powerhouse. Mr Abe wants more and has called for a "robotics revolution". His government has launched a five-year push to deepen the use of intelligent machines in manufacturing, supply chains, construction and healthcare, while expanding the robotics market from 660 billion yen (S$7.7 billion) to 2.4 trillion yen by 2020.

"The labour shortage is such an acute issue that companies have no choice but to boost efficiency," said Mr Hajime Shoji, head of the Asia-Pacific technology practice at Boston Consulting Group. "Growth potential is huge," he added.

By 2025, robots could shave off 25 per cent of factory labour costs in Japan, said the consulting firm.

Automation also has huge potential for distribution. Toho Holdings' 10 billion yen distribution centre employs about 130 workers, roughly half the number at another one of similar size.  Productivity per worker is 77 per cent higher with robots handling 65 per cent of item-picking, the drug wholesaler says. "We wanted to lower manpower requirements by using robots because we already found it hard to recruit people," said Toho executive managing director Mitsuo Morikubo.

Inside a grey three-storey building in Saitama, north of Tokyo, about 28,000 items, such as vaccines, liquid food and suppositories, are stored. On the second floor, people open cardboard boxes and take out items for the machines to handle.

The dexterity of the 16 robots is in evidence when one of them lowers its arm, stopping just above a box. Eight suction pads stretch down, latch on and drop it on one of the three narrow conveyor belts.

Depending on the type, size and weight of an item, the machine alters which pads it uses, how fast it moves and where it puts the item. The robots can pick up to about 10,000 items an hour with almost perfect accuracy. By adjusting the timing of the conveyor belts, the whole system can mix different products and make up orders for individual customers.

Workers like Ms Asuka Arai handle less strenuous work. She also makes up orders using a handheld device to read product bar codes. The scanner then tells her how many boxes to grab and where to put them. "It's easy for women to work here," said Ms Arai, 27. "You don't need to lift heavy things and the system is set up to keep you from making mistakes."

Further automation is planned for another 11 billion yen warehouse Toho will build in Hiroshima in a few years, said the company.

Japan has been a leader in factory robots for decades. Now, with China and South Korea making automated machines of their own, the new focus is on service robots.

It is a market the government aims to expand twentyfold to 1.2 trillion yen by 2020, while planning to double the market size of manufacturing ones to 1.2 trillion yen.

Among companies pushing that frontier is Cyberdyne Inc. Its bionic suit HAL detects signals from the wearer's brain to his muscles and assists movement, reducing exertion. It means less strain for factory and construction workers and helps physical therapy patients.

Cyberdyne president Yoshiyuki Sankai thinks robots are not a threat but a solution to social issues in Japan. He thinks they will someday be so embedded in people's lives that they will forget they are wearing them. "Our target is to make a new market," Mr Sankai, 57, said. "A new era won't come without action."

Mr Yutaka Tanikawa, who runs Tokiwa Koutai Co, an aluminium processing firm, wants them to boost productivity, ease backaches for older workers and, most of all, attract younger staff by adding a cool touch to dusty, sweaty factory jobs.

"Looking ahead, everything points to a labour shortage," said Mr Tanikawa, 49, who hunts for recruits at schools and job fairs in the face of the tightest labour market in 23 years.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline ''Robotics revolution' picks up steam in Japan workplaces'. Print Edition | Subscribe