Commentary: COVID-19 will usher in the industrial robots

Commentary: COVID-19 will usher in the industrial robots

As companies remain under pressure to protect the health of their staff, automation is certain to have an enhanced role, says the Financial Times' Kana Inagaki.

TOKYO: As factory shutdowns darken the outlook for the industrial robots market, one of its biggest players sees little reason for despair.

Hiroshi Ogasawara, the president of Yaskawa Electric, argues that in a post-coronavirus world in which workers have to keep their distance from each other, the trend towards automation will only accelerate.

Coming from the head of Japan’s second-biggest maker of factory robots, the projection is clearly self-serving. And in the short term it may also prove misplaced.

Research group Omdia expects the US$16.5 billion global industrial automation equipment market to shrink 11 per cent this year as companies hoard cash and axe capital spending to survive the global recession.

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But over the longer term, automation is certain to have an enhanced role given companies will remain under pressure to protect the health of their staff as the global economy eventually recovers. 

Even Toyota, which has stressed the risk of skills becoming lost with rapid automation, concedes that the shift to robotics in factories is likely to quicken because of the pandemic.

SAFETY OF FACTORY EMPLOYEES

In Japan, where companies still communicate via fax machines and documents are signed using carved hanko seals, much of the focus during the pandemic has been on expanding teleworking to meet a government target of reducing face-to-face interactions by 80 per cent.

However, the struggle for manufacturers has been to safeguard the safety of factory employees – including engineers and maintenance staff – who do not have the option of working from home.

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Japan has managed six straight quarters of economic growth -- its best run in a decade -- but at a
(Photo: AFP/KAZUHIRO NOGI)

The conglomerate Toshiba, for example, managed to only shift 40 per cent of its 76,000 employees in Japan (a total that includes those in manufacturing operations) to teleworking as the nation appeared to be heading for a rise in infections last month.

At that point those staff who could not work from home were starting to voice their frustration and anxiety, according to Takamasa Mihara, the general manager of Toshiba’s human resources division. 

To double that tally, Toshiba brought forward the paid leave it had set aside for the now postponed Tokyo Summer Olympics. The move allowed the company to shut its domestic factories from April 20 through early May in an extended Golden Week holiday.

With operations now resumed, Toshiba may adopt a four-day week for workers at its plants, alongside existing safety measures such as face masks, social distancing and the adjustment of work shifts and lunch hours to avoid gatherings of people.

Daikin, one of the world’s biggest makers of air conditioners, has asked employees to come to factories wearing their work clothes to avoid contact in locker rooms.

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But despite this raft of measures there is no revolutionary safety measure or technology that can eliminate the risk of infection for factory workers.

That is true for Elon Musk, who has restarted production at Tesla’s electric vehicle plant in California in defiance of local county orders.

The long list of safety guidelines in the US carmaker’s 38-page “return to work playbook” include rigorous cleaning, hand sanitisers, reduced shuttles running to and from the factory and temperature checks.

BETTING ON AUTOMATION

The fact that factories cannot completely shield their workers is why Japanese manufacturers from Yaskawa to Omron, which produce more than half of the world’s supply of industrial robots, are placing their bets that companies will turn to automation.

FORPHEUS, a fourth-generation table-tennis robot developed by automation parts maker Omron returns a
FORPHEUS, a fourth-generation table-tennis robot developed by automation parts maker Omron returns a shot to a human player at a top Tokyo tech fair on October 2 AFP/Kazuhiro NOGI

Tadashi Yanai, founder and chief executive of Fast Retailing, has confirmed he would push ahead with an effort to replace almost all of its workers with robots at its warehouses – a shift the Uniqlo operator had already begun to address an acute labour shortage. 

Others may opt for “collaborative” robots, or co-bots, which can work side-by-side with humans in proximity and are suitable for helping to keep a safe distance between workers.

Either way, the paradox is that deploying more robots to safeguard human health creates another major anxiety: Unemployment.

According to a survey of 5,000 people in the UK, US, Germany, Japan and Sweden, conducted by Kekst CNC, more than a third of Japanese workers are already expecting to lose their jobs because of the economic destruction wrought by the virus.

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Automation also accelerated in the years following the 2008 global financial crisis. But if the main driver then was to cut costs, Kota Ezawa, analyst at Citigroup, says new norms could emerge from the coronavirus crisis that place a bigger emphasis on employee well-being.

For such a structural shift to occur though, companies will first need to survive this crisis and arm themselves with fresh capital to make technology investments.

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Source: Financial Times/el

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