The labor shortage has become a serios concern for all sectors in Japan. Some 90% of the companies responded that there were sections in the company suffering from a labor shortage, according to the survey on this matter by En-Japan Inc., a recruitment agency. Even some convenience stores have started to rethink the practice of their 24-hour operation, which has long been taken for granted in Japan. The manufacturing industry is no exception, and one approach to address this challenge is to increase productivity through a broader application of advanced tools such as robots, IoT and AI.

Expanding the use of foreign labor is one of the options being promoted by the Japanese government, which adopted a number of measures to encourage foreign nationals to work in the country in December 2018. Indeed, many foreign nationals are already working in factories in Japan, and Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that the dependency on foreign labor is especially high in Nagano prefecture. According to the 2015 census, the manufacturing industry is most dependent on foreign labor as one in 35 workers is a foreign national. The ratio is higher than other sectors that are commonly associated with labor shortage challenges such as the hospitality industry (one in 41) and the agriculture and forestry sector (one in 47). The overall dependency in the prefecture has increased by 60% from one in 110 in 2009 to one in 70 in 2017. Companies in Nagano are struggling to find Japanese workers and increasingly more dependent on foreign labor.

As highlighted above, expanding the use of foreign labor is a useful measure to address the labor shortage, however, there are challenges associated with it. Another way to address the labor shortage is one that does not depend on human workers. Industrial IoT (IIoT) is one of the major trends in this regard.

IIoT increases productivity, improves safety and optimizes the supply chain of the manufacturing industry by connecting industrial machines and systems on the Internet. Companies across the world have already taken actions to transform their production through IIoT. Some have taken further efforts to improve efficiency by enabling machine learning through Artificial Intelligence (AI) added to the machines and industrial robots.

In this context, a cobot or co–robot is attracting increasing attention in the industry as an option to address the labor shortage in many sectors. A cobot is literally a robot intended to physically interact with humans in a shared workplace. Traditional industrial robots are large and set up in a closed area for the manufacturing of cars and machines. They are good for conducting simple tasks, but it is difficult to use such large robots in workplaces that require complex tasks.

The downsizing of robots thanks to technical innovation and the easing of regulations have made it possible for humans and robots to work together in a shared workplace. This led to the development of many cobots for the human-robot collaboration.

According to the report by MONOist, online media, more and more industries are now using robots to address their labor shortage. Robots are now used in parts assembly and food, cosmetics and medicine factories.

Shiseido, a leading cosmetic company of Japan, introduced cobots in the finishing work of its cosmetic powder. The task involves putting together the instructions, sponge and foundation cream and then packaging it. The task used to depend on human labor as the materials and sizes are different, and, thus, the task cannot be standardized. Previously, the product was visually checked and covered by a clear container, and then a set comprising a sponge, instructions and foundation cream was inserted. Then the three completed packages are grouped and packed for shipping, and then two different labels are attached to the shipping box and finally the box is stored in a folding container. This long and complex process has now been largely automated with cobots. The visual check is done by human labor, but the remaining two processes are done by cobots. Thanks to this, the productivity of this task in 2018 increased 1.4 times compared with the past.

The cobot market in Japan is expected to grow 15-fold between 2017 and 2025 with the market size reaching JYP100 billion, according to a study by Fuji Keizai, a marketing research company. Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that major foreign cobot manufacturers are actively promoting their products in Japan. A Danish company which enjoys a 50% global share is approaching Japanese SMEs while a leading Taiwanese manufacturer is set to establish its first branch in Japan to expand its business in Japan. Japanese companies such as FANUC and Kawasaki Heavy Industries are trying hard to catch up by expanding new business areas through acquisitions and the development of new cobots. The demand for cobots is increasing not only in the manufacturing industry, but also in other sectors including the food and drink and service industries. The competition between Japanese and foreign companies will drive further innovations in this field.