TOKYO -- Business is booming for industrial robot manufacturers in Japan, thanks in part to China's changing demographics.
Chinese companies are increasingly opting for automation to offset a serious labor shortage. Among members of the Japan Robot Association -- an industry group -- total China-bound exports of industrial robots surged 48.3% on the year in the January-March period, to 45.7 billion yen ($407.1 million).
The association expects the total value of robot production, by members and nonmember companies alike, will reach a record 750 billion yen in 2017.
Chinese manufacturers are finding it harder to recruit for a couple of reasons. First, they can no longer count on hiring migrant workers, since the development of inland areas has allowed more people to settle down and find jobs locally. Second, young people who grew up in the era of the one-child policy have a reputation for shunning manufacturing jobs.
Robots are helping to fill the gap, and they offer benefits to boot. Automation can help to maintain product quality while improving production rates and ensuring safety. Beijing offers subsidies for introducing industrial robots, aiming to enhance the sophistication of Chinese manufacturing.
Machinery makers are stepping up their own efforts to capitalize on the Chinese robot boom -- from courting customers to raising production targets.
Japan's Fanuc plans to set up technical centers in the inland city of Chongqing and the southern municipality of Guangzhou, possibly by 2018. The facilities will serve as both sales and customer support centers as well as showrooms.
Swiss multinational ABB also intends to open a large new office in Chongqing to bolster its sales and support services.
Japanese players Yaskawa Electric and Nachi-Fujikoshi are on the move in China, too. Yaskawa will expand production lines at a plant in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, aiming to more than double local monthly output to at least 1,200 units by the end of 2019. Nachi-Fujikoshi is to bring a new Chinese plant onstream by the end of 2018, tripling its production capacity to 1,000 units per month.
Chinese companies are hardly the only ones bringing in the bots. In Japan, foodmakers and other companies that have not relied heavily on robots "are getting serious" about automation, due to the country's low birthrate and shrinking working population, Yaskawa Electric President Hiroshi Ogasawara said.
Yet another driver of robot demand is growing interest in the internet of things, and the possibilities that come with connecting myriad devices.
Globally, industrial robot sales totaled 248,000 units in 2015, up 12% on the year and setting a record for the third straight year, according to the International Federation of Robotics.
As with any boom, there is the question of how long it will last. Yasuhiko Hashimoto, general manager of the robot division at Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries, acknowledged worrying about the Chinese government's time frame for doling out subsidies. But he said he expects the state support to continue for at least the next few years.
Kawasaki Heavy plans to boost output at its main Chinese plant by 80%, to 7,000 units a year, by March 2018. The company believes there is still plenty of room for market growth there, and it sees a prime opportunity to bring robots into other sectors, such as medical and nursing care.