Business / Tech

As Japan's labor crunch bites, companies look to robots to plug the gaps

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

In the not-so-distant future, more robots may be interacting with customers at shopping complexes, serving food at restaurants or cleaning floors at offices in Japan amid a serious labor crunch.

A hint of what is to come is visible at the International Robot Exhibition 2019, a major biennial robot trade show that kicked off on Wednesday at Tokyo Big Sight. The event runs until Saturday.

Featuring a record 637 firms and organizations, some participants said demand for robotics as helping hands in service sectors is rising to compensate for a shortage of workers.

Tokyo-based Omron Social Solutions Co. unveiled a robot capable of performing three tasks: cleaning, security and guiding.

“We hear that it’s becoming harder to hire security guards and cleaners due to labor shortages,” said Masayuki Atsumi, a spokesman for the company, a subsidiary of Omron Corp., which produces control equipment and sensors.

The 87-centimeter-tall robot, which comes equipped with a 21.5-inch display, can walk along preprogrammed routes and avoid collisions with obstacles. It can also be operated by remote control.

Some cleaning robots produced by other firms are already on the market, but their function tends to be limited to just cleaning. Omron’s robot, which is scheduled to debut in May next year, has a competitive edge because a single unit can perform multiple tasks, Atsumi said.

For instance, if a shopping mall opts to “hire” the robot, it can clean floors in the morning, wander around with advertisements on its display and interact with shoppers during the daytime, and act as a security guard at night.

Omron said demand for robotics technologies in the service sector is likely to increase, so the firm is looking to beef up its efforts.

Other participating companies are also displaying their robots for security or guiding purposes at the trade show.

Restaurants are considering turning to robots amid the labor shortage, according to Pangolin Robot Japan Co., a unit of a China-based firm.

Eateries are increasingly looking to counter a lack of manpower, said Koichi Wakabayashi, a sales official at the firm.

The Chinese firm makes robotic servers for restaurants that can deliver food and pick up dishes. Wakabayashi said Pangolin, which was founded in 2006, has shipped about 2,000 such robots in China.

The firm entered the Japanese market in 2017, and its serving robots have been introduced at some restaurants, said Wakabayashi.

Pangolin’s serving robot is more reasonably priced than those made by Japanese firms, since its function is simpler, Wakabayashi said. The average daily cost is about ¥1,000 if an eatery uses a robot for five years, he said.

Other than robots for the service sector, the International Robot Exhibition showcases robots and smart technologies for agriculture. Many companies are also exhibiting robotics technologies for factory automation and industrial uses.