Doing more with less: the driving forces accelerating cobot automation in Japan

Population trends, industrial changes and the labor environment are driving cobot uptake in Japan.

Doing more with less: the driving forces accelerating cobot automation in Japan
Doing more with less: the driving forces accelerating cobot automation in Japan

Demographic change driving the adoption of cobots in Japan

Japan's working-age population peaked in 1995 and has been dwindling ever since. According to the UN’s World Population Prospect forecasts, there will be 18.4 million fewer working-age people in Japan by 2030 compared with the population peak in 1995. The birth rate is now so low that the Prime Minister recently said that Japan is “on the brink of being unable to maintain social functions”. The aging population means that skilled workers will soon retire, which is reinforced by the younger workforce becoming more fluid and a faltering immigration. An investigation by the Japanese government revealed “labor shortage” was considered an issue by almost half of the manufacturing companies that were included.

As a consequence of the decreasing population, Japan’s GDP per capita has remained almost flat since the mid-1990s, and its ranking in the OECD has continued to decline.
Japanese leaders have long promoted productivity as an essential part of driving economic growth and raising the standard of living for the declining population. In the manufacturing industry, which accounts for about 20% of Japan's GDP, improving productivity through automation and labor-saving initiatives is increasingly expected.

Building on a strong national record history of automation

Japan is already an undisputed robot powerhouse, with a full lineup of major industrial robot manufacturers and large-scale automation. It is one of the most robotized countries in the world, with almost three times the global average of robots per manufacturing employee. Japan boasts the world's second largest number of robots in operation after China. Automation using conventional industrial robots and specialized machines has long been common in many industries, particularly in the automotive and electronic industries.

In Japan, the first cobot was introduced in 2012, and sales began in 2013 through UR's distributor. The market has been growing since UR opened its Japan office in 2016 to establish a distributor network. After that, major Japanese industrial robot manufacturers began to introduce cobots, and awareness of collaborative automation increased rapidly. UR cobots were initially adopted by automotive and electronics manufacturers. They are now deployed in metal/machine industries as well as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and food.

Doing more with less: the driving forces accelerating cobot automation in Japan

Poised for increased cobot use

Yet, compared to other regions, cobots could still penetrate more deeply in Japan. This is partly because they were introduced to the market relatively late – a full five years after America and Europe. Many Japanese companies are therefore still in the early stages of cobot adoption. At this stage some still need better understanding of how robots can be used without safety fences subject to risk assessment.

Japan stands to benefit hugely from an increased uptake of cobot technology, particularly in those areas of production that produce a wide variety of products in small quantities where traditional industrial robots and specialized machines are less effective. Given Japan’s demographic challenges, growing collaborative automation seems inevitable as the country moves to improve efficiency and productivity across industries.

Global competition looks set to drive automation in Japan, a country known for its high-quality production. To retain that competitive edge companies are constantly looking for new ways to differentiate their products through new technologies.

Japan has relocated many of its simplest, low value-add manufacturing tasks to overseas factories leaving the most complex tasks in Japan. But shifting macroeconomic forces, such as a rise in wages in China and global supply chain challenges are now encouraging the reshoring of routine tasks across many parts of the world, including Japan – a situation which is likely to lead to increased cobot update.

Next steps on Japan’s journey to cobot automation

In light of all of these factors, cobot market in Japan is expected to enter a growth phase, helping to sustain Japan’s strong manufacturing tradition for future generations. So what next?

There is still a job to do to raise awareness of cobot technology in the country, and some companies lack the knowledge and confidence to look to this newer type of industrial automation. Certified system integrators trained by Universal Robots are ready to help and guide businesses across the country through the process of cobot automation. Over time, Japan is also likely to see the emergence of more turn-key cobot solutions for the most common applications.

UR robot welding at Fujita Works
UR robot welding at Fujita Works

Computer literacy and employee upskilling in other countries has helped encourage cobot uptake. Japan has a strong record in mechanical and control systems but IT skills are also becoming

more widespread – a trend which is likely to drive cobot uptake. Here too, Universal Robots and its partners are able to help. Integrator iCOM Giken for example is not only removing barriers for cobot automation of palletizing an

d welding, it also functions as a UR-certified training center and focuses on decreasing the cost of system development by helping users build their own robot systems.

Tsuyoshi Yamane, General Manager for Japan at Universal Robots, says companies introducing cobot technology typically share some key features: “Many are concerned about or already facing labor shortages and they are all making management decisions based on longer-term perspectives to remain competitive. They see the benefits of bringing cobots to work alongside people and they are usually looking to automate non-ergonomic tasks to create a more comfortable workplace for employees.”

Building a resistant manufacturing system with cobots

Fujita Works, which specializes in high-precision sheet metal work, has succesfully divided the welding process into pre-welding and permanent welding, with pre-welding undertaken by workers and permanent welding tasks done by robots. Usually, it takes more than three years to master welding, but with the introduction of UR cobots, even young workers have been able to master welding techniques in a few months. Ms. Emi Wakita, a welder at Fujita Works, said, "It's been my dream to be in charge of welding for a long time, and I'm very happy that now I can not only do it manually, but also with a robot.” Fujita Works has also automated the feeding of workpieces into the press brake processing machine, improving work efficiency, reducing the physical burden on workers, and increasing job satisfaction.

UR robot working at the end of a conveyor at Toyota Motor Hokkaido
UR robot working at the end of a conveyor at Toyota Motor Hokkaido

Toyota Motor Hokkaido, which manufactures transmissions, axles, and other parts for Toyota Motor, has begun building a robot system using UR robots to improve the parts feeding process. The company, which has been seeking to improve its own processes under the slogan of "strengthening its manufacturing structure," has devised a system that improves the process utilization rate from 92% to 98%, while reducing costs and space compared to the previous system that used specialized equipment. This series of process improvements was led by their Production Engineering Department without relying on a system integrator. Mr. Isobe of the Unit Manufacturing Engineer Office, Engineering Department of Toyota Motor Hokkaido said, "Thanks to introducing automation via UR cobots, we succeeded not only to reduce cost, but also to improve our skills to develop manufacturing systems. We believe this is a way to strengthen our system development. “








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