A Response In Japan To Low Birthrates And Labor Shortage: Humanoid Robots

When there are fewer humans to fill certain jobs, businesses turn to different *creatures.*

Kawada Industries' NextAge humanoid robots
Kawada Industries' NextAge humanoid robots
Yann Rousseau

TOKYO - Only 1.03 million children were born in Japan last year. During the same period, 1.24 million people died. Since the country's net migration rate is close to zero, the Japanese population therefore decreased by more than 200,000 citizens in 2012. And this trend is accelerating fast.

Government projections estimate that over the next two decades, Japan will lose nearly a million people per year. “We have less and less potential workers, and youths don’t want to work in factories anymore,” observes Katsuhiko Maruo, director of the Glory Ltd. factory in the Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo.

“In Japan, the robots are the future,” sums up Maruo, who – in a world first – has entrusted an entire assembly line to humanoid robots.

A few meters away from the human workers, four robots -- with an articulated head and small cameras for the eyes, two arms mimicking human movements attached to a torso, mounted high on wheels -- are assembling the tiny elements of a money-sorting machine that will be incorporated into a cash register.

Each robot can execute up to 15 different tasks and is able to plug – if necessary – different tools into its hands. Once it is done assembling, it passes the component to the next humanoid on the production line and reorganizes, by itself, its own workstation by putting away trays of screws, rubber or plastic components. If any pieces are missing, the humanoid turns around and grabs a full tray in the stock just behind him. It then proceeds to slowly peel off the plastic film protecting the most fragile pieces.

“They can be up to 80% as productive as humans. The real difference lies in the fact that they don’t take weekends or days off and they also work at night,” says Maruo with a smile. He has already implemented 13 humanoids in his factory, together with dozens of industrial robots. “Normal robots work fast and very precisely, but they don’t have the ability to execute different kinds of tasks and are not as flexible and dexterous as humanoids,” he explains, in front of a workstation where a humanoid is working alongside a young woman.

Added value

Glory Ltd, one of the world leaders in money-handling machines, has been working with Kawada Industries for almost a year now in order to finalize the development of his new “employees” – NextAge humanoids. Kawada, the Japanese leader in robotics says they want to free humans from menial, repetitive tasks so that they can focus on tasks that create and generate added value. Kawada provides the machines and helps its clients develop software as well as the robots’ “hands.” Humanoid robots are not just equipment, they are now partners, says Kawada.

Glory Ltd. says each humanoid robot cost them 7.4 million yens (60,000 euros). This represents a year’s salary – payroll costs included – for a normal worker. “The investment is paid back in less than two years and each humanoid only consumes 1,600 yens (16 euros) worth of electricity per month,” explains Maruo, who adds that introducing these new machines didn’t provoke any social movement in the company.

The group is expecting a 10% growth in net profit for this fiscal year starting April and hasn’t laid off any personnel with the arrival of the machines. Three hundred and twenty humans are still employed in the Saitama factory where more robots will soon be arriving.

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