Japan’s obsessed with automation not because it’s novel, but because there just aren’t enough people.
More small and medium-sized companies are buying robots to make up for a labour shortfall, reports Reuters, and robot manufacturers are seeing more orders coming in.
The shortfall is due to a huge labour crunch in the country companies with staff ranging from 100 to 499 workers advertised to fill 1.1 million new positions last year, according to data from Japan’s Labour Ministry.
To meet that shortfall, companies are investing more to increase efficiency, according to officials. A Bank of Japan survey found that mid-sized companies are planning to boost investment in capital by 17.5 percent, though it is unclear how much will be spent on automation.
“The share of capital expenditure devoted to becoming more efficient is increasing because of the shortage of workers,” Seiichiro Inoue, a director of Japan’s industrial policy bureau of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, told Reuters.
The number of people who are of working age peaked in 1995 at 87 million and has been falling since; it is projected to fall to 76 million this year, according to government statistics.
Customisable solutions are popular amongst small and medium companies, say manufacturers.
“More than 90 percent of Japan’s companies are small and medium size, but most of these companies are not using robots,” Yasuhiko Hashimoto, who works at Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ robot division, told Reuters. “We’re coming up with a lot of applications and product packages to target these companies.”
Kawasaki sells two-armed robots that can be easily customisable for a range of industrial uses, like making chips, processing food or manufacturing drugs.
Robots are also dominating Japan’s service industry.
The service robot industry is expected to grow to about 4.9 trillion yen ($43.1 billion) in 2035, reports the Nikkei Asian Review. Japanese retailers like Aeon are planning to roll out 400 autonomous cleaning robots by 2018, and the company is already using robots for inventory management.
The Hen-na Hotel or Odd Hotel made waves in 2015 with its all-robot staff but its egg-shaped personal concierge has been a big draw for the service industry.
The robot, named Tapia, is basically Amazon Echo in a hotel it recognises people’s faces and responds to their voice commands, and acts like an alarm clock and personal assistant. It was designed for use in homes, said MJI, its manufacturer, but they’re now getting enquiries from companies too.
“Banks, hospitals and hotels are interested in using Tapia for reception work and communicating with customers,” Sayaka Chiba, an MJI director, said. “Nursing homes are also interested we’ll continue to sell this for use in the home, but all the interest from companies show that the market has shifted.”
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