Cheaper, smarter robots to spark factory revolution
Rapid advances in robotics combined with falling prices will spark a new manufacturing revolution, with factories dropping workers for automation at an increasing pace, a new study said Tuesday.
The pace of price falls and improved abilities of advanced robots to "see" better, grip better and self-adjust better make them an attractive option for even small manufacturers across an ever-wider range of industries, said the study by Boston Consulting Group.
The big beneficiaries of these advances are expected to be more agile manufacturers in the United States, China, Germany, Japan and South Korea, which are expected to quickly accelerate spending on robotics over the next decade, BCG said.
Left behind will be countries like France, Italy and Belgium, "largely because of inflexible labor laws that make it difficult to replace workers through automation," BCG said.
The study said the prices of advanced industrial robots -- automatically controlled, reprogrammable industrial machines that work on three or more axes -- will fall around 20 percent over the next 10 years.
Meanwhile their contribution to productivity should improve by about five percent a year, making them increasingly attractive even to manufacturers in medium-wage environments.
For a country like South Korea, the savings on labor was estimated at 33 percent. For other leading economies like the United States, Germany, and Japan, the savings were at 20-25 percent.
And for global export powerhouse China, its stunning revival over the past two decades rooted in cheap labor but now challenged by rising wages, the savings from advanced robots will be about 18 percent, according to the BCG study.
"As labor costs rise around the world, it is becoming increasingly critical that manufacturers rapidly take steps to improve their output per worker to stay competitive," said Harold Sirkin, a BCG senior partner and one of the report's authors.
"Companies are finding that advances in robotics and other manufacturing technologies offer some of the best opportunities to sharply improve productivity."
Robots have long been used in manufacturing, for instance in the auto industry, where often they do one repeated action, with little movement involved.
Advanced robots have not only the advantages of being programmable and to operate on multiple axes, but also can develop and apply logic -- automatically adjusting to different situations like varied-sized materials -- to perform tasks.
There is much room already for advanced robotics to grow in manufacturing, the BCG study said.
Of all manufacturing tasks that can be automated today, only about 10 percent are being done by robots. In 10 years, it predicted, robots will be handling a quarter of all those tasks.
The net effect will be to cut the total cost of the labor involved in manufacturing by 16 percent on average in the world's top 25 goods exporters.
They still have very limited uses in some industries, like food processing, metal fabrication and wood processing, where a human's eyes and hands are better able to deal with differences in materials, and do it more cheaply.
It would still be hard, for instance, for a robot to replace a human in a slaughterhouse.
But the "vision" and gripping abilities of robots are advancing quickly, and will increasingly be able to replace jobs in those industries.
"Regardless of whether it's time to invest in next-generation robots, manufacturers everywhere should start preparing," said Sirkin.
"The coming robotics revolution could significantly reshape the global manufacturing landscape."