By >RENO J. TIBKE
Japanese Robots: Yaskawa Motoman Opens Shop in China; Shudder the Labor Market?
Of planet Earth’s estimated 1,240,000 operational industrial robots, about 230,000 were made in Japan and sold around the world by Yaskawa Motoman. Earlier this week, they opened their first overseas factory in China, which means that the Chinese are building robots for the Japanese in China to sell to China. It’s totally meta.
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Those who like robots but live their lives outside of industrial robo-geekery probably know Yaskawa Motoman not by name, but by the YouTube footprint of various machines dealing cards, making food, playing golf, assembling stuff, stacking stuff, etc. The semi-humanoid SDA10F (sometimes called Dexter Bot), for example, might be familiar:
SDA10F “Dexter Bot” Dealing Cards at IMTS 2012
Yaskawa Motoman is the industrial robotics division of the nearly 100 year-old Yaskawa Electric Corporation, a global electronics and manufacturing firm based in Kitakyushu, Japan. Until now, all their robots have been produced right here on the archipelago, but just a few days ago they opened their first factory in China. The new facility in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province is reportedly now the world’s largest-capacity industrial robot factory. The manufacturing robots to be manufactured there will be used primarily to manufacture automobiles (welding, painting, and materials handling).
“So, will industrial robots be building industrial robots in this industrial robot factory?!”
Sure, a valid question that immediately pops up among the more… robo-enthusiastic, but for actual assembly and such, the answer appears to be no (left & middle below). However, below on the right, in a screen capture from NHK coverage of the announcement, an industrial robot is spray painting an industrial robot at the facility. Cool, but not exactly all Terminator Skynet robots-building-robots pre-apocalypse or anything.
(Since we’re on the subject, it might not seem very sexy, but the story of industrial and automation robotics in Japan is way interestinger than one might think: Japan’s Industrial Robotics Situation: it’s Interesting. Seriously!)
The Big Why Might Be a Big Problem:
Most of the Japanese & Chinese news outlets, the vast bulk of the coverage, included some kind of cursory statement about increasing labor costs in China being the Why of all this, but no one’s just come out and said “Hey, it’s like this: robots don’t complain about low wages, they don’t get hurt, don’t take breaks, they rarely commit suicide – you know, all that stuff those soft and sensitive mammals do. They might cost a lot in the beginning, but they’ll quickly pay for themselves.” Yeah of course, there’s a lot to gain from implementing robotic labor… for those who can buy it – not so much for those to be displaced.
But this isn’t new news – about two years back, Xin Hua News reported on Foxconn’s plans to further incorporate robotic labor into its massive force of 1.2 million humans. The big-picture intention was to increase the number of robotic “workers” from 10,000 then to 1,000,000 over three years. We’ll see what next year brings, but it’s clear that human labor has become a troubling cancer in the profit stream of the World’s Factory; a once inexhaustible, malleable, cheap Chinese labor force has become a bit adversarial and increasingly expensive. Captains of Chinese industry like Foxconn’s Terry Gou, having years ago foreseen as much, are now beginning to implement work-ready, eventually profit-positive, human rights-neutral, therefore preferable robotic labor.
And that’s why Yaskawa’s getting open armed into China.
For now it’s heavy labor, but realistically, are there really a whole lot of manufacturing jobs left that are doable by human hands alone? Baxter from Rethink Robotics and Nextage from Kawada Industries, as examples, offer proof that squishy five-fingered labor is far from a growth sector – and the technology isn’t exactly standing still.
Market economics, the capitalism, it’s what we humans do, and it seems to be the best economic system we can realistically implement – or at the very least it’s the least of many possible evils. Time and time again, however, we’ve witnessed burgeoning, fast-growth market economies display ferocious ineptitude when it comes to self-regulation. In that vein, could a widespread, highly profitable in the short-term, relatively sudden transition to robo-labor destroy China’s economy? That’s a big negative. Could it give China’s economy a seizure? Maybe, maybe yeah.
And maybe China’s industrial leaders, faced with the most challengingly massive human labor pool on the planet, will take it slow and safe. But, slow and safe doesn’t buy yachts and islands, as the kids these days often say – so you gotta wonder: are Terry Gou and his peers silly and profit-drunk enough to roboticize the world’s second largest economy into bubble-esque recession? Could massive manufacturing layoffs even produce such an effect? Hard to say, but unless robots suddenly start getting less effective and more expensive, we will find out.
And you know, Japan, rather recently demoted to the world’s third largest economy, yet so very enthusiastically investing in robots for its largest trading partner’s labor market (Yaskawa’s not alone), probably wouldn’t mind moving back up.
Hey… ahhhhh, ohhhh, Yaskawa!
Well played, well played.
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Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.
VIA: NHK (Japanese/日本語)
Images: Yaskawa Motoman; NHK