Rubbing along with robots tackles Abe's double dilemma

Sat Jul 4, 2015 9:06pm EDT
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By Leika Kihara and Kaori Kaneko

TOKYO (Reuters) - 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 labor and a need for growth.

The 19 robots, which cost her employer Glory Ltd (6457.T: Quote) 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 aging 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, but times appear to be changing.

Capital expenditure rose 11 percent 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.   Continued...

Humanoid robots work side by side with employees in the assembly line at a factory of Glory Ltd., a manufacturer of automatic change dispensers, in Kazo, north of Tokyo, Japan, in this July 1, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Issei Kato/Files