Coronavirus will usher in industrial robots

As factory shutdowns cloud the outlook for the industrial robot market, one of its biggest players sees no reason to despair.

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

Coming from the head of Japan’s second-largest factory robot maker, the projection is clearly self-serving. And in the short term, it may also turn out to be misplaced.

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

But in the longer term, automation will certainly play an increased role as companies will remain under pressure to protect the health of their staff as the global economy recovers.

Even Toyota, which has highlighted the risk of skill loss with rapid automation, concedes the shift to robotics in factories is set to accelerate due to the pandemic.

In Japan, where businesses still communicate by fax and documents are signed with carved hanko seals, the focus during the pandemic has been on expanding teleworking to meet the government’s goal of reducing face-to-face interactions by 80%.

However, the struggle for manufacturers has been to protect the safety of factory workers – including engineers and maintenance staff – who are unable to work from home.

Conglomerate Toshiba, for example, managed to shift just 40% of its 76,000 employees in Japan (a total that includes those in manufacturing operations) to telework as the country appeared to be heading for a rise in infections last month. latest. At that time, employees who couldn’t work from home began to express frustration and anxiety, according to Takamasa Mihara, general manager of Toshiba’s human resources division.

To double that count, Toshiba advanced the paid leave it had set aside for the now-postponed Tokyo Summer Olympics. The move allowed the company to close its domestic factories from April 20 to early May during an extended Golden Week holiday.

With the resumption of operations, Toshiba could adopt a four-day week for workers at its factories, alongside existing safety measures such as face masks, social distancing and adjusting shifts and lunch hours to avoid gatherings of people. Daikin, one of the world’s largest makers of air conditioners, has instructed its employees to walk into factories wearing their work clothes to avoid contact in locker rooms.

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But despite this set of measures, there is no safety measure or revolutionary technology that can eliminate the risk of infection for factory workers. This is the case of Elon Musk, who restarted production at Tesla’s electric vehicle factory in California in defiance of local county orders.

The long list of safety guidelines in the US automaker’s 38-page “back to work book” includes rigorous cleaning, hand sanitizers, reduced commuting to and from the factory and temperature checks.

The fact that factories can’t fully protect their workers is why Japanese makers from Yaskawa to Omron, which produce more than half of the world’s supply of industrial robots, are betting companies will turn to the ‘automating.

Tadashi Yanai, founder and chief executive of Fast Retailing, has confirmed that it will continue its efforts to replace almost all of its employees with robots in its warehouses – a change that operator Uniqlo had already begun to face with a severe shortage of workforce.

Others may opt for “collaborative” robots, or co-bots, which can work side-by-side with nearby humans and are suited to help maintain a safe distance between workers.

Either way, the paradox is that deploying more robots to protect human health creates another major worry: unemployment.

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

Automation also accelerated in the years following the 2008 global financial crisis. But if the main driver then was to cut costs, Citigroup analyst Kota Ezawa says new standards could emerge from the crisis. coronaviruses that put more emphasis on employee well-being.

However, for such structural change to occur, companies will first need to survive this crisis and arm themselves with fresh capital to invest in technology.

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Mavis R. Bernier