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Which Country Will Win the Robot War?

The International Federation of Robots (IFR) keeps tabs on what impact robots are having on the world. Automation is the awe-inspiring idea that humans won’t have to work as much because they’ve animated the inanimate and asked it to do it for them.

The industries driving the industrial robotics boom are those involved in electronics, metal, rubber and plastics. These jobs can be dangerous, they can be very boring, and they can be automated, so they are. However the biggest consumer of industrial robots is by far the automotive industry. There are around 100,000 robots working to make (and be) the next generation of transportation.

Geographically Asia is by far the largest market for industrial robotics. Cultural norms mean migration is used less than in Europe or the United States to renew the workforce. Here are five countries doing the robot.

  • China
    2015 saw sales of 68,600 industrial robots to China. This is an increase of around 20% on 2014. Of these sales a third were from Chinese companies, two thirds of sales were made by foreign companies. By 2019 almost 40% of the global supply of industrial robots is predicted to be in China.
  • South Korea
    38,300 units were sold to South Korea during 2015, 55% more than 2014. Although reporting inconsistencies put this growth rate closer to 30% that’s still a lot of ‘bot. South Korea has an astounding 531 robots per 10,000 employees in the manufacturing industry, there are almost twice as many robots in the industry compared with 2009.
  • Japan
    The Japanese economy has been through some tough times over the last two decades. 35,000 units made their way to Japan in 2015. An increase of 20% on 2014 and the highest level since 2007. Japan’s automotive industry is dominated by robots. There were 1,276 robots per 10,000 workers in 2015.
  • The United States
    Robot installations in the US grew by 5% in 2015 to a total of 27,504 units. The drive behind this growth is to strengthen American businesses, rooting the manufacturing base of many companies in the United States. The US has a robot-worker density of 176. In the automotive industry alone there are 1,218 robots per 10,000 employees.
  • Germany
    Along with the previous four entrants Germany rounds off the national leaders in industrial robotics. With a robot-worker density of 300 per 10,000 employees Germany leads Europe in robotic deployment.

The impact of industrial robotics on employment, productivity and profit is yet to be determined. Automation could undoubtedly be used to fuel a dystopic world with wide class divisions assuming a monopolisation of industries by ruthless profiteers. Yet the larger picture is one of light and dark.

A 2015 study by George Graetz and Guy Michaels found industrial robotics to be a substantial driver of economic growth and labour productivity. Using data collected between 1993 and 2007 from 14 industries in 17 countries Graetz and Michaels purport 10% of GDP growth and 16% of productivity improvement can be linked to robotics. This works out at 0.36 and 0.37 annually. Slow steady growth like this is emblematic of a general purpose technology; industrial robotics is a long-term project.

It is over the long term that the negative effects of robotics will show should policy changes elsewhere falter. Low skilled workers are most likely to be displaced. Those sitting in Silicon Towers may balk and demand re-skilling of these workers. But they’re not just workers, they’re people. The film I, Daniel Blake follows Daniel Blake, a 59 year old carpenter from the North East of England as he is made redundant and forced through the welfare system. Macro-level analyses average out people like Daniel reducing them to data points. This is not to say robotics needs to stop. It is that we need to design and implement policy which will not alienate the large swathes of vulnerable people at risk from automation.

All data from the IFR Executive Summary of World Robotics available here

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Mathew Sayer

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