Japanese companies have begun to significantly invest in the development of ‘cobots’. Cobots are smaller sized robots that are designed to interact with and work alongside the human workforce.
However, some warn that these cobots might replace human labor entirely.
Automation and robotics have become one of the fastest growing fields across the world. The rise of Artificial Intelligence has proven that multiple kinds of jobs that were previously handled by human beings can now be conducted by robots. Richard Susskind, UK government advisor and visiting professor at Oxford Internet Institute, and his son Daniel Susskind, lecturer at Oxford University have detailed this future trend in their book, Future of the Professions: How Technology will Transform the Work of Human Experts. Daniel Susskind has noted, “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that there will be less for people to do,”. “If machines and systems take on more and more tasks, as we see them doing, then it begs the question: What will be left for people?
In 2017, research firm PwC conducted a study that revealed that countries across the world will begin losing jobs to automation. The study noted that in the next 15 years, 40% of jobs in the U.S. may be vulnerable to automation and robots. In the same time frame, 35% of jobs in Germany could be replaced by automation and 30% of jobs in UK will become vulnerable. In Japan, 21% of jobs will become vulnerable to robots and automation.
Japan is the third largest economy in the world by nominal GDP after America and China. It has the fourth largest purchasing power parity. After the devastation of World War II, Japan achieved a steady and significant growth in the second half of the 20th century. Much of its expansion was due to its highly successful automotive and consumer electronic industries.
Over the years Japan has prided itself on its reputation for the quality of its manufacturing industry. It has used this as a selling point over China and other countries that offer cheaper alternatives to goods. The Japan Quality Association (JQA) is responsible for ISO certification. It was established in 1958 as the Japan Management Institute (JMI) under Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry for the purpose of export inspection.
A cobot or co-robot is a robot intended to share a workspace with a human and also conduct duties that are generally meant for human workers. ‘Cobots’ are designed to interact with their human co-workers and designed to operate autonomously or with limited guidance. These kinds of much smaller, lighter robots are specifically designed to work alongside human beings, especially in assembly lines of manufacturing companies. Equipped with advanced sensor and vision technology, and computing power, multiple Japanese companies have begun to invest significantly in the manufacture of such robots. Japan’s Fanuc and Yaskawa are two companies at the forefront of the cobot manufacturing industry that supplies globally.
Not only do experts believe that demand for these cobots will increase across the world, they can specially address human resource concerns in Japan’s manufacturing. Cobots can typically lift loads of upto 10 kilograms and can be small enough to put on top of a workbench. They can help with repetitive tasks like picking and placing, packaging or gluing and welding.
Until recently, cobots (which are considerably more dainty and smaller than larger robots that can lift heavy objects) were seen as a niche market. However, demand for them has increased exponentially. “We didn’t expect large manufacturers would want to use such robots, because those robots can lift only a light weight and have limited capabilities,” said Kazuo Hariki, an executive director at Fanuc. Media reports note that such cobots can be priced anywhere between $10,000 and $25,000 on an average.
The industrialized world is facing critical labor shortages because of its ageing societies. Japan’s labor force for example is projected to decrease from 77 million in 2015 to 45 million people in 2065. Besides fewer people, this also leads to a loss of skills due to retirement – coming on top of the serious talent mismatch Japan is already facing today. “Labor costs are rising, with more intense competition to hire workers,” said Atsushi Honda, technology team manager at Nippon Flour’s plant engineering group. Automating some tasks with machines that didn’t need to be separated from human employees helped the company solve that labor issue, he said.
James Stettler, an analyst at Barclays Capital, estimates the cobot market could grow from just over $100m last year to $3bn by 2020. In fact, some estimates note that it will probably be worth several dozen times its current size. Cobots are becoming popular not only in Japan but also across the world and hence Japanese companies that are manufacturing them are rising to meet these demands.
“A lot of people have been waiting for this kind of breakthrough,” says Jesse Rochelle, manufacturing engineer at Stenner Pump, a US-based company. Stenner recently acquired Baxter, a two-armed cobot made by Boston-based Rethink Robotics. The use of cobots in small companies may . . . at a minimum, allow jobs to remain local. In Japan, Nippon Flour Mills presently uses a cobot made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries for seasoning packaged food sold at convenience stores.
Yaskawa’s head of robotics, Masahiro Ogawa, has said that as the world begins to understand the value of cobots, demand for it will also rise. “As users get used to handling cobots, they will have more advanced and diverse demands. We have the capacity to better meet such demands,” Ogawa said.
In order to successfully work alongside humans, cobots have to fit these three requirements:
- They have to be safe
- They have to be mobile
- They have to be easy to use
Some experts note that the rise of cobots will not necessarily mean that it will take away human jobs. It is possible that it will transform present labor intensive jobs done by human beings. On an additional note, it is possible, that these cobots will be able to address the problems currently plaguing the manufacturing industry in Japan in terms of quality control.
Our assessment is that technological advancement in robotics poses both an opportunity and a challenge for mankind. Automation on one hand will able to eradicate human error and will cost much lesser than human labor expenses. However, on the other hand, it might still come at the cost of human-held jobs. Automation will displace 22.7 million US jobs by 2025. This equates to a job loss of 16% between 2015 and 2025. Therefore, governments should begin focusing on helping the current workforce develop adequate skills to adapt to new changes and keep in pace with the transforming workplace.