The preface for the proceedings of the Robots VI Conference, held in Detroit in March 1982, included this warning: "No war... no strike... no depression, can so completely destroy an established business, or its profits, as new and better methods... new and better equipment in the hands of our enlightened competitors."
The "new and better," in this case, referred to robots, and the "enlightened competitors," as far as most of the 2,300 conferees were concerned, were the Japanese.
Robot technology is U.S. technology: The modern industrial robot is the brainchild of American inventors and engineers, and the first units went to work in Ford and General Motors plants in 1961. The U.S. enjoyed a 15-year lead in research time and an 8-year lead in production -- Japan didn't get its hands on a robot until 1967. But, by the end of 1981, Japan had 14,246 robots, the vast majority produced by domestic manufacturers. The United States has only 4,100. The United States still enjoys a technological advantage -- it manufactures the "Cadillacs" of the robotics industry -- but, in the marketing and implementation of the technology, the Japanese clearly dominate. There are now more than 150 Japanese robot manufacturers; last year, they did $246 million in business. About 30 U.S. makers had 1981 revenues of $155.5 million. Fourteen of the Japanese companies distribute their products in the U.S., eight others are ready to move in, and a number have entered into licensing or manufacturing agreements with U.S. firms.
The Japanese have also successfully introduced robots into a wide range of industries and have directed much of their effort toward small businesses. They now have robots at work in 130 different manufacturing applications and have identified no less than 233 nonmanufacturing uses: everything from agriculture and coal mining to traffic watching and waste disposal.
"Small entrepreneurs have had very favorable experiences with robots in Japan," says Aron. "There is, for instance, a Mr. Iguchi, in Tokyo, who runs an injection-molding plant which makes parts for the toy industry. Now, Mr. Iguchi's plant has no employees except for Mr. Iguchi and four robots, which he leases from the Japan Robot Leasing Co. at a cost of about $167 per robot per month.
"Each morning, Mr. Iguchi goes to work, unloads the finished product, and puts it into his car. He loads the machines up, gets them going, closes the door, and goes out to deliver the parts. Then, in the afternoon, he improves his golf game. He must be doing very well," Aron adds, "because his golf handicap has been declining steadily."
The reasons for Japan's enthusiasm, and, in turn, for its success in utilizing robots, are numerous.
Japanese businesspeople are, in general, less wary of technological innovation than Americans. They have adopted a long-range perspective which accepts the necessity of occasional short-term losses, the sort of loss that the introduction of a robot may occasion. Labor has embraced the new technology because it spells an end to unpleasant or hazardous work, means upgraded jobs, and increases a company's productivity. (Japanese employees get semiannual bonuses based on profits.) "For the Japanese worker, robots mean a bigger share of the pie," says Aron.
A healthy and growing economy has also created a labor-poor, capitalrich situation. "Japan has a shortgage of highly skilled people, and they're also more concerned about environmental factors affecting their employees than we are," observes William Pearson, of the Allendale, N.J.-based U.S. headquarters of Hitachi. "Even the smaller shops in Japan are using robots because they just can't find that skilled welder." The Japanese can borrow money for about 7% and, if they intend to invest it in robots, can obtain even better terms. The government's Ministry of International Trade and Industry has designated robot production a major strategic industry and is encouraging robotics activity. It helped set up Japan Robot Leasing Co., which offers short-term leases on robots, and permits manufacturers an extra 13% depreciation on purchased units. "If the United States is serious about increasing productivity, then it's essentialy that they do something similar," says Aron.
Japan has also concentrated on relatively simple and inexpensive robots -- Hondas, rather than Cadillacs. "The Japanese just can't understand why, in America, we put six-axis $100,000 robots on three-axis $10,000 jobs," says Walt Weisel, vice-president of Prab Robots Inc. "There's an awful lot of overkill in the U.S. market today."
The upshot is that U.S. businesspeople now face the threat of "new and better" methods and equipment in the hands of "enlightened competitors." And who pointed it out to them? The warning contained in the preface of the Robots VI Conference proceedings first appeared on a bulletin board outside the plant of a Japanese robot manufacturer.