By >RENO J. TIBKE
Japan’s Industrial Robotics Situation: it’s Interesting. Seriously!
Sweet, More J-Robots! …Oh. Industrial Robots?
Okay, today will not be heroic rescue & recovery robots, nor life-changing assistive robots for the disabled and elderly. No, today we’re talking Japan’s industrial robots, and through profound statistics, talk of money, and wildly general projections for the future, we’re going to spice up this dry robot salad.
Now, industrial robots are basically super-strong, super-precise, fantastically dexterous multi-jointed arms that do pretty much exactly what they look like they should: welding, machining, painting, assembly, etc. These robots are intended to allow humans to avoid the so-called Three Ds: work that is Dirty, Dangerous, and/or Demeaning. They do this well, and while being technically impressive and integral to the global economy for well over three decades, in truth industrial robots are not really very sexy.
See, unfortunately you can’t wear them for super powers, and most don’t really go anywhere – they’re bolted to the floor or a mount with a limited radius of motion. It’s obvious why there aren’t any sci-fi horror movies about these machines going all Skynet and rebelling against their human oppressors. So, how does one take the only-very-interesting-to-specialized-geeks topic of industrial robotics and dress it up in heels and hottpants?
First: Robot Money – People Like Money
Number crunchers at the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimate that, in 2011, industrial robotics was a US$25 billion industry (on sales of 166,000 units). Nearly matching that, in 2012 more than 160,000 new industrial robots were sold. To whom? Well, customers around the world, but there was a standout player…
Second: Big in Japan – Crazy Numbers & Stats
IFR estimates indicate that the total worldwide stock of operational industrial robots at the end of 2012, both new and old, was right around 1,235,600 individual units. Of the 160,000 sold last year, Japan alone added about 31,000 to their cart. With those purchases, now about 291,000 of the world’s operational industrial robots reside in Japan. That’s twice South Korea’s count, nearly three times that of China, and 92,000 more robots than Canada, the United States, and Mexico combined.
Another impressive perspective: 25% of all operational industrial robots in the world are located in a country where only 1.8% of humanity lives on .014% of planet Earth’s habitable land area. Well done, Japan. Well done.
What About the How & Why: Japan – What’s up?
To give a little foundation here, understand there’s this technological acculturation and development phenomenon at which Japan really excels. Basically, it works like this: from time to time, some outside technology is introduced, Japan embraces it, and then really runs with it. Products and services are sometimes improved and refined vastly beyond the originals. Radios, cars, trains, internet cafes, convenience stores – the list goes on, and the results do impress. For example, in Japan you can get a really decent salad from 7-11 (originally from Texas, 1946). You can also get a pretty good fighter jet from Mitsubishi (originally from McDonnel Douglas, now the F-15J/DJ Eagle).
With manufacturing, before the sprint toward assuming a plurality of the world’s industrial robotics market, Japan began with the Kawasaki Unimate, seen here in its Robot Hall of Fame glamour shot:
The Unimate was designed in the 1950s by American George Devol, patented in 1961, and first employed by General Motors. Unimation, the resulting company, licensed their technology to Kawasaki in 1969.
The Japanese Industrial Robot Association was formed a few years later, and with that things went into overdrive; by 1973 there were 3,000 industrial robots at work in Japan. In a nation dominated by a massive middle-class that produced relatively few basic laborers among a population projected to decline, and with a growing international demand for Japanese products in a pre-outsourcing-capable yet quickly globalizing market, robotic manufacturing was an obvious necessity.
Japan’s current industrial robotics producers include Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Yaskawa Motoman, Kawada Industries, FANUC Robotics, and a few others. They sell both domestically and internationally, and their primary competition are the equally well-established industrial robotics manufacturers of Western Europe.
Near-Future for Japan and Abroad: Taking Over Previously Human-Only Jobs?
Numbers do indicate that the heavy-lifting industrial robotics market might have reached a kind of static maturity, i.e., there’s only room for so many and their eventual replacements. While the heavier side of the industry was booming and is perhaps now approaching a coasting point, the processing power, various sensor technology, and intuitive semi-autonomous learning algorithms applicable to smaller robots were gaining traction. Potentially able to work alongside humans and/or replace them, these new machines are reaching marketability and perhaps opening a broad new sector for industrial robotics: taking over the work that, until recently, was human-only:
From left to right above are machines from Yaskawa Motoman, Kawada Industries, and some new American competition: Rethink Robotics’ US$22,000 Baxter, the product of an upstart company headed by far-from-upstart roboticist Rodney Brooks. As with heavy industrial and nearly all other fields of robotics, Japan is actively pushing and propelling this sector. It appears they’re staying on their toes, keeping the global competition churning, and steadily promoting improvement. It’ll be interesting to see how light industrial robotics, possibly in concert with 3D-printing technologies, will alter and shape future manufacturing.
Can of Worms Addendum – Human Labor Soon Needed No Longer: Ferociously Unlikely
Lots of tech journalists, economists, academics, and what have you are of late doing a good deal of hand-wringing over whether or not the softer, lighter side of industrial robotics is going to decimate what’s left of the developed world’s labor market, prevent developing countries from ever having one, and thereby bring about the apocalypse.
Can’t really open the issue in the second to last paragraph here, but consider this: across 2011’s US$25 billion industrial robotics’ market value, only US$8.5 billion represents the cost of the devices themselves. The other 60%+ was software. Components. Service and support. Other stuff. So, lots of jobs. Lots of opportunity. And what’s that other thing people like so much… Yeah, money. You know, this would be so much easier to relate if only there was an example of a nation with a massively roboticized labor force that achieved economic success in the long-term!
The thing is, jobs change form. The rise of PCs, for example, it didn’t eliminate, but rather evolved office work. So as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and several other billionaires recently advised: Teach the kids to code.
Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.
Note: for those who really want to dork out on industrial robots, a ton of info is freely available on the International Federation of Robotics homepage. This report owes considerably to the wealth of information provided there.