If you are a human who works at the Kawada factory outside Tokyo, most of your coworkers are robots. On the assembly line, the company’s uber-advanced, human-looking robots can do the work of three people. They can also make you a decent cup of coffee.
In another Tokyo suburb, a cartoonesque robot named Pepper, the first robot designed to respond to human emotions, is joking with customers at a store selling mobile phones.
While Japan has been a robot-friendly place for a long time, the number of robots is now booming, even as its human population is not. In the next five years, the country hopes to build 20 times more of them. One industry leader suggests that the country should invest in 30 million robots–nearly the same population as greater Tokyo–as part of a plan to regain a spot as the world leader in manufacturing.
“What you’re seeing in Japan is a much more aggressive approach to purchasing robots,” says Mike Zinser, a partner at Boston Consulting Group, and co-author of a new study about how robotics will transform manufacturing. “They’ve got a real potential to see significant cost savings, and also an improvement in competitiveness relative to other countries over the next decade.”
Though robots aren’t new on factory floors, new advancements mean that they’re suddenly poised to play a significant role. “The cost of robots has been declining over a few years, they’ve been getting cheaper, but you’re also seeing a performance increase,” Zinser explains. “We’re at a point now in many industries, and many different kinds of tasks, where you’re starting to reach an inflection point. Price and performance is actually at a threshold where it makes sense for a manufacturer to deploy that robot today than it would to pay for human labor.”
This isn’t only happening in Japan. The U.S. is projected to purchase around 1.2 million robots in the next decade. Other countries that have lost manufacturing because of higher wages hope to start to bringing factories back–potentially leading to other benefits, like reduced shipping distances.
“Because you’re taking labor out of the equation, the days of chasing the low-cost labor arbitrage are going to go away,” Zinser says. “I think what you’ll find is manufacturing starting to regionalize, which could send jobs to those countries that are most likely to benefit from the adoption of robots.”
Products are also likely to get both better and cheaper. “You get more consistency in the task at hand, so it has the potential to drive higher quality,” he says. “You see ergonomic benefits–situations where robots can do tasks that would be difficult for a human to do. Robots don’t fatigue, so you have an opportunity to get more output over a given period of time.”
For humans who used to work the assembly line, that will mean a new job–on the low-skill end, maybe helping a robot by handing it something as it works, or on the high-skill end, maybe programming the robots or managing them (or, perhaps, preparing for a robot uprising). And for some of us, it may someday mean we have to work less–or not at all.