2005 January 10 Monday
Toyota Opts For Robots As Japan Rejects Unskilled Immigrants

With Japan's population projected to shrink Toyota is embracing more advanced robots as the solution to a dwindling work force.

Toyota plans to become the first in the industry to use the advanced robots in all production processes, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported Thursday.

The newspaper said the move is aimed at improving production efficiency as the automaker foresees anticipated labor shortages in Japan due to the country's declining birthrate.

Toyota is going to partner with Yaskawa Electric Corp. to develop more advanced robots and Toyota expects to develop robots to do tasks which have been too complex for existing robots.

The new robots would also be used in finishing work, such as installation of seats and car interior fixtures, that have been too complex for conventional robots up to now, the daily said.

Toyota is also going to redesign parts to make robotic placement easier.

Necessity is the mother of invention. (same article here)

"We aim to reduce production costs to the levels in China," the daily quoted an unnamed company official as saying.


Japan has so far rejected calls to open up to large numbers of unskilled immigrants, fearing the effects on the country's social framework.

The future for advanced economies is not in importing large amounts of cheap low-skilled labor. Companies that most competently pursue the development of robots and other forms of automation can ultimately achieve lower production costs than can companies that focus on chasing sources of lower priced human workers. If American companies use low-skilled imported labor as a crutch they will eventually be beat in the market by companies that aim to lower costs by putting far greater emphasis on reducing the amount of labor need to manufacture and service products.

Necessity really is the mother of invention. Import of low-cost low-skilled labor reduces the sense of urgency that firms feel to cut costs and hence functions as a disincentive for innovation.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 January 10 02:52 AM  Immigration Economics

gcochran said at January 10, 2005 6:32 AM:

You're talking as if this were the 21st century or something.

Invisible Scientist said at January 10, 2005 7:18 AM:

It turns out that the current generation of robot technology is such that
the components and the maintenance of the robots would require a lot of human
effort, actually necessitating a lot of human labor.

However, nanotechnology is the key to producing self-maintaining and self-sustaining
robots. When nanotechnology assisted manufacturing is developed, very intelligent robot
systems will be possible.

gcochran said at January 10, 2005 7:42 AM:

You could make a self-reproducing robot using technology that actually exists: there is a certain advantage in that. As for labor costs, I doubt if those Toyota robots require much labor compared to the guys they replace. That's why they make sense.

Kurt said at January 10, 2005 10:01 AM:

Robots require alot of system integration and debug to get them working the way you want. Once this is done, they work very well with relatively little follow-on support. The number of technical support people needed is significantly less than the number of factory workers that are being replaced. Also, the product quality goes up with each level of automation improvement. Even if the amount of human labor required does not go down much, the improvement in manufacturing quality still makes such automation economically desirable.

The Japanese are entirely right in avoiding a large influx of unskilled immigrants into Japan. In addition to the reasons discussed here and in gnxp.com, the Japanese culture is such that assimulation of foreigners, even other Asians such as Chinese and Koreans, is difficult. The Japanese don't even have a large number of high-skill immigrants. In 2001, the CEO of NEC said that Japan had only around 5,000 foreigners who were working in managerial or technical jobs in all areas. However, the Japanese are becomming more open to high-skill foreigners.

The Japanese like robots. There are 8 major manufacturers of PLCs (programmable logic controllers) in Japan. Since robots are usually controlled using PLCs, all of these manufacturers have either expanded into robots or have made business alliance with robot manufacturers. Also, the biggest manufacturers of semiconductor and flat-panel display handling robots are also Japanese companies. Plus all of the zillions of system integrators and what not, there is an intense compatitive pressure in the Japan industry and marketplace to continually improve the robot technology.

The most advanced automation technology is used in semiconductor and FPD manufacturing. Since these industries have been in the toilet for the past 4 years, many of the automation system vendors and system integrators have targets more basic industries such as automotive and other manufacturing, in order to stay in business. For these and other reasons, you can bet that the automation is going to get very sophisticated very quickly.

I know all of this because I used to do industrial and high-tech automation for a living when I lived in Japan. I programmed alot of robots when I was there. I can assure you, if we can automate a "lights-out" 300mm wafer fab (where there are no people in the fab), we can certainly automate a "lights-out" car factory.

Invisible Scientist said at January 10, 2005 10:04 AM:

But what is the current rank of the US in the field of Robotics? Any comments?
I don't mean the academic success of the American universities in robotics, I mean
how far behind are the American companies falling? Given that the U.S. manufacturing
is declining, it is probably the case that the amount of investment in robots is not
good enough to compete with the rest of the world...

razib said at January 10, 2005 11:44 AM:

don't discount illegal workers. i know many bangladeshis work in japan without papers. i even have a few relatives who work for multinationals in japan legally.

Kurt said at January 10, 2005 11:54 AM:


I know about the workers with improper visas. They are mostly from Bangladesh, India, and Philippines. Some from Africa as well. I also knew a dentist in Japan who is from Bangladesh. Most of his clientele were foreigners, mostly westerners. Most of the Bangladeshis that I met in japan work as engineers.

However, since Japan is a group of islands, it is much harder to get to Japan from, say, Bangladesh, than it is to go from Mexico to the U.S. So, the overall number of illegal aliens in Japan remains relatively small, compared to the U.S. The total number of illegals is in the 100,000s, not millions as in the case of the U.S.

Of course, there are many Chinese and S.E. Asian women working illegally in the mizu-shobai ("water" trade). They tend to be sponsored by the Yakuza, but not always.

Randall Parker said at January 10, 2005 12:14 PM:


The US manufacturing sector still produces hundreds of billions (trillions?) of dollars worth of goods per year. So there is certainly a large enough scale of operations to make robotics pay back.


As Kurt points out, the number of illegals in Japan is small. As a proportion of their population I doubt that it is even a tenth of what the US has. Also, their illegals aren't reproducing in large numbers.

Stephen said at January 10, 2005 6:39 PM:

Just speculating here, but wouldn't greenfield sites (ie entirely new factories designed with robots in mind) be a lot easier to automate than legacy factories? It would be analogous to Henry Ford building a production line from the ground up instead of having to remodel an old fashioned workshop.

The other problem with legacy sites is that factory workers don't like to be replaced by robots, so all sorts of industrial relations problems happen. Don't really have that problem with greenfield sites.

Also, I think that any company that invests in the west in large scale manufacturing is heading for trouble as I can't see them being cheaper than companies manufacturing in China or India etc.

Nanotechnology will be amazing, it will change the world.

(probably from a sphere into a cube).

PacRim Jim said at January 10, 2005 7:55 PM:

Who needs cars? Ride the robots. Better yet, have the robots run our errands for us. That way, we can stay on the (no doubt robotic) couch and watch robotic TV will our personal medibot gives us liposuction 24x7. The future will be so easy.

razib said at January 10, 2005 9:13 PM:

well...i don't know the situation. but it seemed peculiar that about a half a dozen of my cousins (i have like 30 or something) have worked in japan or are working in japan. most are college educated, and i get the impression that they generally work for multinationals, but i've had two uncles who were manual laborers back in the 80s.

John S Bolton said at January 11, 2005 1:09 AM:

A labor shortage, which doesn't exist in peacetime in the antibiotics era, unless it were in some extremely small oil exporting country with large reserves, does nothing but good for per capita production. One would have to read the fine print on the statements of economists, which sound like they're saying the opposite. It turns out that they are actually talking about how to increase output in general, but not per capita. Julian Simon said it is better to have a larger population, and a lower per capita production. What we have to deal with instead, is labor surplus, using lower wages as a command to get itself hired when the alternative was to use more capital and more productively. The governments productivity numbers are contaminated by the inclusion of the extra $400 billion provided to us by the Bank of Japan each year.

John Ray said at January 11, 2005 5:13 AM:

I agree with what you say in your post but has anybody ever doubted America's ability to cope without illegals? The illegals are in America because THEY want to be -- not because the naughty WSJ has enticed them in to act as factory-fodder

Invisible Scientist said at January 11, 2005 8:00 AM:

Radall Parker wrote:
"The future for advanced economies is not in importing large amounts of cheap low-skilled labor. Companies that most competently pursue the development of robots and other forms of automation can ultimately achieve lower production costs than can companies that focus on chasing sources of lower priced human workers. If American companies use low-skilled imported labor as a crutch they will eventually be beat in the market by companies that aim to lower costs by putting far greater emphasis on reducing the amount of labor need to manufacture and service products.
Necessity really is the mother of invention. Import of low-cost low-skilled labor reduces the sense of urgency that firms feel to cut costs and hence functions as a disincentive for innovation."

The future for advanced economies (to advance further) is to raise the national IQ a little bit, which would facilitate the
creation and incorporation of robots into the economy. And note that the average IQ in Japan is higher than in the USA.
Please see the following web page for the correlation between national IQ and success:

Wherefore what the US needs to do is to import
intelligent babies (adopt them from all over the
world) instead of unskilled labor. Moreover,
encourage intelligent parents to have more
kids by offering various incentives, such as
guaranteed scholarships for their kids.

Dimitar Vesselinov said at January 12, 2005 3:51 AM:

Where is the Robot-Valley?

Osaka Emerging as Robot City
"A new Straits Times article says there are 154 firms in Osaka, Japan with robotics-related patents and many more working on robotics technology. The city has become the center of robot technology in Japan and possibly the world. Japan expects to be the world leader in the production of next-generations robots, a market projected to be $46 billion by 2010. Osaka is also hosting a RoboCup competition this month."

World Robotics 2004
"How many robots are now working out there in industry?
Worldwide at least 800,000 units (possibly the real stock could be well over one million units), of which 350,000 in Japan, close to 250,000 in the European Union and about 112,000 in North America. In Europe, Germany is in the lead with 112,700 units, followed by Italy with 50,000, France with 26,000, Spain with 20,000 and the United Kingdom with 14,000."

"Are we seeing any service robots in our homes?
At the end of 2003, about 610,000 autonomous vacuum cleaners and lawn-mowing robots were in operation. In 2004- 2007, more than 4 million new units are forecasted to be added."


Invisible Scientist said at January 12, 2005 10:29 AM:

Dimitar Vesselinov wrote:
Where is the Robot-Valley?

Regrettably, Robotics is a much more mathematical field than straighforward
"programming". In pure programming, like system programming, clever algorithms
and computer graphics (which has its own proprietary mathematics in it), there a
lot of geniuses at Silicon Valley, but there is
a shortage of mathematical or physical types to do a lot of new implementations.
Academically, there are a lot of brilliant professors and students in robotics,
but not enough people to fill the gap between pure robotics and implementation.
In Silicon Valley, you do not find that many people with mechanical engineering
backgrounds who are also good incomputing and mathematics.

I had a job interview in Silicon Valley, where the company was doing more "applied" software,
and I was told that instead of hiring people with pure C.S. background, they preferred
engineers, chemists, and mathematicians who are better at applications, instead of
strong algorithmic background the C.S. people are excellent at.

ALL OF THIS is due to the lack of math and physics emphasis in US high schools.
There are a lot of geniuses in the American universities, but for the industry,
the US still depends on importing foreign labor in some specialized areas of
engineering that requires mathematics. In former Soviet Block countries and
Europe, as well as in Asia, there is a strong tradion of mathematical training,
and this is why the US is importing some of these people, but the outsourcing
will ultimately kill the United States, unless the educational system is
changed in emergency, to emphasize math in high schools. The American high school
kids have less than stellar math scores, even though the top professors in American
universities are winning most of the Nobel prizes.

Eric said at January 13, 2005 8:04 AM:

Random points:
1) Most illegals in Japan are in construction, not manufacturing. I'd imagine robotics will take somewhat longer to penetrate that sector. (And when that time comes, "process re-engineering" will play a far bigger role --- rather than trying to smarten up robots until they can do the job just like third-world border-jumpers, we'll have to separate the process of building a house or skyscraper or whatever into far more and far more modular steps, each of which various specialized robots could perform easily).

2) The Japanese government seem to have a VERY clear awareness of how to use immigration policy as a tool of other policy, whether that be industrial policy (keeping housing somewhat affordable as in #2), social policy (okay, the outreach to overseas Japanese descendents such as Brazilian-Japanese back in the 80s was a failure, but the gov't had the sense to shut it down rather than expand it), or foreign policy (I've seen speculation that the relatively lax Japanese visa policy towards Iranians back in the 80/90s was directly related to Japan's need for Iranian oil). However, Americans see immigration as more of an end in itself; immigration policy is used to influence immigration, just like agricultural policy is used to influence agriculture. It's kind of a mental block --- many people, including I suspect much of the House and Senate, would no more think of using immigration policy as an tool to improve the economy than they would think of using farm price supports as a tool to improve education.

3) As Invisible Scientist alludes to, I suspect American interest in making a career out of the hard sciences/mathematics is dampened by the fact that it's very easy for corporations to import that kind of talent from overseas, or outsource it there, depressing wages. The attitude seems to be that math, like construction, involves exertion, and is thus better performed by low-wage deportable third worlders.

4) At a TA for a mathematical algorithms course back in university, I observed that many CompSci undergrads cannot do math and seem incapable of learning. Even (or maybe especially) the best ones would make poor engineers or physicists. I don't think this is just an American phenomenon.

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