November 29, 2023
By: Shu Yasumi
Editor-in-Chief, SEISANZAI Japan
Mr. Norio Kodaira, Honorary Chairman of the Robotics Society of Japan, has published a book entitled “The Complete History of Industrial Robots” (Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun, published in Japanese). The book is about the history of the robot industry from a cross-sectional viewpoint of manufacturers, and is a book of great value as a resource. Mr. Kodaira, the Honorary Chairman, mentioned in the “Author’s Talk” column of the Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun on November 6 that “automation has become a tool for reducing manpower, not for strengthening competitiveness”. These are very astute words. Many people in the media, including myself, have bought into the propaganda that “industrial robots are manpower-saving tools” without giving it much thought. However, robots should be used to strengthen competitiveness, not as a passive means of alleviating labor shortages. A proactive use of robots is exactly what is needed.
But what is competitiveness? This would take a long discussion, I quote from Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema’s book, “The Discipline of Market Leaders: Choose Your Customers, Narrow Your Focus, Dominate Your Market” for a discussion of the concept of competitiveness. According to the book, companies that become number one in their industry are superior in one of three areas: (1) operational excellence (i.e., great business systems = lower costs and convenience), (2) product leadership (great products), or (3) customer intimacy (“being close to customers”). This is the theory. In other words, each robot-using company must develop a strategy that combines one or more of these three factors with the capabilities of the robots.
For example, a DFM (Design for Manufacturing) type strategy of designing parts that are easy for the robot to hold in order to facilitate assembly automation would fall under (1). A production cell linked to an order system that uses robots to produce products 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whenever customers request them, might fall under (3).
Thinking in this way, it becomes clear that robots are a technology not only for production engineers or maintenance personnel, but also for those who work outside of production, such as design and development, sales, general affairs, and quality control. This is because the clues to the proactive use of robots are scattered throughout their daily work as “professionals in their field,” and solving the problems they face can lead to increased competitiveness.
So, to all the executives reading this column. I would like to ask you to take people who work outside the manufacturing field to the “2023 International Robot Exhibition” (November 29-December 2, Tokyo Big Sight). If Japan is too far away, let them visit any robotics exhibition in your area. And give them homework to think about how they can directly or indirectly relate robotics to the work of their own departments. Also, after the exhibition, let them have many discussions and chats with production engineers and maintenance personnel. Robots are useful tools that can be used in any industry. It is no longer time to divide up which departments should be involved. Particularly in Japan, the working-age population is going to decline at a tremendous rate. Unfortunately, the manufacturing industry is not very popular, so no matter how hard we try, it is unlikely that many young people would join this industry. We must be prepared to develop the company for the next 10 or 20 years with only the members we have now. When it comes to which is more realistic, “increasing the popularity of the manufacturing industry” or “proactive use of robots,” the latter is clearly the more practical choice.
Thank you for reading this, and thank you very much for your attention to this issue.
September 15, 2023