Japan is serious about its robots. An ageing population, with an estimated 40% of its people projected to be above 65 by 2050, coupled with a low labour force growth rate, is pushing the Japanese, especially at the higher echelons of the government, to look towards its robotics industry to boost productivity levels and fuel growth. In 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a five-year plan to achieve a “robotics revolution” which aimed at incorporating robots into various sectors of the economy and the society such as manufacturing, supply chains, construction and health care as well as expanding the robotics market to $20 billion by 2020. And it seems like Japan is well on its way to achieving this goal.
Japan’s domestic robotics industry already possesses an edge over its international rivals. Japanese companies such as Fanuc, Yaskawa Electric, and Kawasaki Heavy Industries make up for 50% of the global market in the factory and industrial robotics space. Moreover, cheaper sensors and higher computing power have already driven down prices of industrial robots to almost $25,000, making them more affordable for small and mid-size factories. It is estimated that as such technologies become cheaper, Japanese factories will be able to reduce their factor of labour costs by almost 25% by 2025.
Furthermore, Japanese society and culture has an inherently different view of robots as compared to the West. Japanese society has traditionally been very open to robots, so much so that even the older generations have a very positive view of robots, often perceiving them as helpmates and equals. This has proved to be a great incentive for Japanese industries as they invest billions of dollars on continuously upgrading technologies in consumer robots that help make daily life more convenient. From Manufacturers Next Technology’s Hana-chan, a robot dog that will sniff out smelly feet to Toyota’s third generation humanoid T-HR3 robot aimed at co-existing and assisting humans in their daily lives, Japan is continuously rolling out sophisticated technologies.
India’s robotics industry on the other hand, is still in its nascent stages, with penetration of industrial robotics limited to large manufacturing concerns. Further, there have been no significant investments in the field of personal or consumer robotics. This situation, however, is starting to change, with the necessary push being given by a clutch of new start-ups. The use of industrial and surgical robots in particular is on the rise. GreyOrange, for example, one of the leading robotics and automation start-ups in India recently launched Butler, a robot that sorts 1.2 crore packets a month, potentially revolutionizing warehouse logistics in the country. Surgical robots are also becoming increasingly popular. Currently, India possesses over 50 surgical robots that conduct an estimated 700 robotic-assisted surgeries each month in the country. But, there is potential for a lot more to be done. According to Vattikuti Foundation, India has the potential to be second largest surgical robot market by 2020.
For all these efforts to bear fruit, however, India needs an integrated and coordinated policy approach for robotics. Firstly, unlike other East and South-East Asian countries such as China, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore, India still lacks a unified policy for commercial robotics. In India, the commercial robotics space has developed primarily through start-ups that operate in a policy vacuum devoid of any specific incentives for such companies. A cohesive national policy would serve as a great incentive for more players to venture into the field.
Secondly, India needs to leverage its IT talent pool in developing intelligent programs, server engineering, embedded programming, and other software aspects of robotics, which are as important as the hardware components. Given India’s current talent pool, this in fact is an area where India could quickly become globally competitive.
Third, the Indian government and industry should begin looking at greater research and technical collaborations with foreign companies and start-ups. Japan, in these respects, is an ideal partner. Not only do its robotics companies have a long and distinguished pedigree, it is also the very edge of startling new innovations. These innovations are not only technical innovations, but also end-use and cultural innovations as has been mentioned above.
With a stagnating domestic market, such Japanese companies also have a vested interest in building better technological relations with India. Leveraging Japanese expertise in robotic manufacturing and channelling local software talent would allow India to come to terms with a fast changing global economic scenario, where automation will rule the roost.
The need of the hour is for all the stakeholders to engage in meaningful conversation and formulate a comprehensive national policy to facilitate the development of the robotics industry in India.