Machinery makers look to AI, robots to combat labor shortages

The machinery sector is striving to develop labor-saving technology with artificial intelligence and connected devices to help firms cope with labor shortages in industries from construction and natural resource development to electronic parts manufacturing.

Major Japanese machinery makers such as Komatsu Ltd and Fanuc Corp gathered earlier this month at an electronics show near Tokyo to showcase their latest technologies in the absence of some electronics giants like Sony Corp.

Companies from other non-technology industries also joined the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies, or CEATEC, Asia’s largest electronics trade show, as they looked to team up across sectors to address pressing issues such as the labor crunch by using AI and internet of things technologies.

“More investment is needed to launch labor-saving measures, as companies in a variety of sectors…face labor shortages. This is already becoming a serious issue and the situation is going to worsen further,” Junichi Makino, chief economist at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc, said.

“The labor crunch is dealing a heavier blow to small and medium-sized companies than to big companies. With labor costs and the need for investment both rising, the burden (on small companies) is enormous. The government also needs to take measures to support them in this aspect.”

At CEATEC, Komatsu, which took part in the exhibition for the first time, demonstrated its concept of a future construction site where an autonomous hydraulic excavator and a self-driving crawler dump truck work together using image analysis, topographic surveying and obstacle detection, all operated by AI devices.

Komatsu also displayed a bulldozer remotely controlled through live images by an operator sitting in a specialized cockpit. The real-time images were sent through high-precision image cameras installed in the bulldozer.

The construction machinery maker is a pioneer in developing unmanned construction sites. It launched a trial project using driverless trucks in an iron ore mine in Australia in 2008.

“Creating an unmanned construction site in the future is not a dream. This is what we are aiming for. It would be possible with remote operators,” Komatsu’s chief executive officer, Tetsuji Ohashi, said in a speech at CEATEC, vowing efforts to speed up developing autonomous construction equipment.

The construction industry is one of the sectors most severely hit by labor shortages. With more skilled workers retiring and the need rising for rebuilding infrastructure in natural disaster-prone Japan, many contractors are banking on AI and other technologies to address labor shortages, analysts said.

Komatsu’s CEO said the construction sector will face a workforce shortage of 1.28 million people by 2026, or one-third of the required number. He added that 94 percent of construction companies are small-sized with 10 or fewer employees in Japan.

Industrial machinery maker Fanuc put on show at CEATEC a new labor-saving production system which connects various manufacturing devises via the internet to raise productivity and enables maintenance-free operations with real-time monitoring of operations and detection of any abnormalities.

The company also exhibited AI-powered robots that can pick out the right parts among a jumble of disarranged and different-sized ones for use by various manufacturers including auto, electronics and machinery companies.

Amada Holdings Inc., a major metal-processing machine maker, displayed an automated production control system called vFactory. Manufacturing equipment can be checked at all times remotely to run manufacturing lines in accordance with production plans.

With the fourth industrial revolution involving the internet of things, AI, robotics and big data fast progressing, “the key to growth is whether companies can enhance productivity by using such technologies,” Takuji Aida, chief economist at Societe Generale Securities, said.

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