TOKYO: Factory worker Satomi Iwata has new co-workers, a troupe of humanoid automata that are helping to address two of Japan’s most pressing concerns — a shortage of labour and a need for growth.
The 19 robots, which cost her employer Glory Ltd about 7.4 million yen ($60,000) each, have eye-like sensors and two arms that assemble made-to-order change dispensers alongside their human colleagues in a factory employing 370.
“They aren’t human, but it’s as if I’m working with colleagues who do their work very well,” said Iwata, who has worked at the factory for four years.
Glory is in the vanguard as Japanese firms ramp up spending on robotics and automation, responding at last to Premier Shinzo Abe’s efforts to stimulate the economy and end two decades of stagnation and deflation.
Cowed by weak demand in a country of ageing consumers, risk-averse companies had largely turned their noses up at ultra-low borrowing costs delivered by years of loose money policies from the Bank of Japan (BoJ), but times appear to be changing.
Capital expenditure rose 11 per cent in January-March from the previous quarter. If that pace is sustained, it would exceed Abe’s target of 70 trillion yen this year for the first time since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
A BoJ survey on Wednesday showed that big companies plan to boost capital expenditure at the fastest pace in a decade in the current fiscal year.
“We’re seeing companies spend more to enhance their plants’ productivity or renovate equipment,” said Ko Nakayama, head of the BoJ’s Economic Statistics Division.
Companies who make the automation equipment are already gearing up for the extra business.
Industrial robot maker Fanuc Corp will spend about 130 billion yen to build a new plant to produce computer control system equipment, and Sony Corp plans to spend about 210 billion yen this fiscal year to boost production capacity for imaging sensors.
Yukitoshi Funo, the BoJ’s new board member who presided at auto giant Toyota Motor Corp
for four decades, says Japanese companies tend to spend more time deciding on new investment than their US rivals, but current spending seemed to mark an inflection point.
“When you see these conservative companies increasing investment, you can expect (other) Japanese executives to ramp up spending,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “I think we’re at a critical juncture now.”
That is welcome news for Abe, who started pushing firms to raise wages last year and now wants them to boost capital expenditure, all crucial to the success of ‘Abenomics’, his policy mix of loose money, fiscal stimulus and structural reforms to push growth.
Investment to streamline operations accounted for 14.4 per cent of total domestic capital spending in the fiscal year that ended in March, up from 10 per cent the previous year, a trade ministry survey showed.
The change in corporate behaviour is also a response to Japan’s stretched labour market.
Unemployment is at an 18-year low of 3.3 per cent, which the Bank of Japan regards as near full employment, while unfilled jobs are at a two-decade high as the economy recovers.