Canada confronts the robotics age

Ian Austen,James Fleming November 8 1982

Canada confronts the robotics age

Ian Austen,James Fleming November 8 1982

Canada confronts the robotics age


Ian Austen

James Fleming

Almost every day since it arrived in Fort Erie, Ont., from Britain two years ago, a bright red Merlin robot welder has performed much the same routine. Its electrical arc and hydraulic power pack humming, the robot arm swings and pivots a welder’s gun through a sometimes jerky, computer-controlled routine. A human attendant stands at its side, waiting to serve up more parts for welding. But the product of the robot’s labor is anything but a child of the so-called microchip age. Harber Mfg. Limited is putting the $165,000 machine through its kinetic paces to make the major portions of some rather antique-looking wood stoves.

More recently, the Merlin has been joined by more robots in the factory run by Blair Harber Jr. and his father. But they are still rare in the Canadian industrial scene. Currently, Canada is estimated to have between 200 and 300 robots in use; a far cry from the 15,000 or so in operation in Japan, the 6,500 in the United States and at least 10,000 in Western Europe. In those regions the robotics revolution is already well under way. So advanced is their development that concerns are increasing

about the dramatic social costs of the race to improve productivity by industrial automation. But, in Canada, the most pressing issues are when and how domestic industry will catch up with increasingly productive foreign competitors.

Modest, if belated, efforts are being made to drag Canada into the highstakes game. Last week officials of Ontario’s ministry of industry set in motion a plan for a robotics technology centre, one of six high-tech labs in a recently approved $16.6-million scheme. Ontario Industry Minister Gordon Walker, for one, is an enthusiastic promoter of robot technology. He acknowledges that his comments about microchips “sound like a religious revelation” and he willingly—if clumsily—demonstrates his new Telidon terminal or a tiny neon laser. And, while some observers dismiss his ministry’s scheme as just a feeble effort to help areas with high unemployment (one “robotics centre” is in hard-hit Peterborough), Walker stands by his belief in the need to preach the high-tech gospel.

Still, some critics charge that no number of glitzy road shows can overcome the problems of a branch plant economy such as Canada’s. Among them is C.S. Jackson, the former presi-

dent of the Canadian United Electrical Workers. Jackson fears that after U.S.based companies boost their production through robots they may not feel a need to keep a shop in Canada running anymore. What is more, even such boosters of industrial robots as Walker are not suggesting that Canada can play catchup and start building systems from scratch. The problem is that the domestic market is simply not large enough to support such a move. And in international markets Canadian manufacturers would stand little chance against well-established foreign competitors. The only solution: producing foreign-designed goods under licence. Says Walker: “We have a long way to go to equip our own factories. That’s where licensing comes in. It can give us the immediate technology that we need.” While Canada finds itself out of the running in the worldwide race to build industrial robots, other nations have set a formidable pace. In keeping with their reputations as leaders in applying technology to boost industrial productivity, Japanese companies began to recognize the potential of robots in 1967. Their strategy: acquire technology developed by a U.S. firm, Unimation Inc., and use it as a seed to grow their robotics industry. Now, Japan is easily the world

leader in the field. Firms such as Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Fujitsu Fanuc and Hitachi Ltd. have cornered roughly 70 per cent of the Western market. According to the Ja1pan Industrial Robot Association, business is booming and will continue to grow. In fact, the industry expanded by 37 per cent in 1981. In total, Japanese firms produced 22,069 robots, valued at a total of $480 million. Not only that, but the association predicts that the number of robots in Japan will increase twentyfold in the next eight years, with annual sales in 1990 projected to be in the range of $2 trillion. Japan’s main user of robots is the electronics industry. But auto producers are a close second, followed by plastics and metal-working companies.

The attraction of robots for those operations is enormous, because they are much more efficient than human workers. At the Fujitsu Fanuc factory south of Tokyo, which produces precision-machined parts, the night shift consists of one human supervisor who watches dozens of robots steadily carrying out instructions fed to them by a computer. The robots are constantly supplied with raw materials by small driverless trucks that scurry back and forth from an automated warehouse. During the day only 100 employees report for work to test products. The results for the firm’s balance sheet have been astounding. The managing director of the factory, Hiromichi Schichida, says that the $44-million operation paid for itself in one year.

“Ghost shift” lines such as those at the Fujitsu Fanuc factory are growing

in use, and, eventually, some Japanese companies hope to introduce completely automated plants. Prototypes of robots that could make that possible already exist. The government-run Electrotechnical Laboratory in Tokyo, for one, has developed a robot that not only sees with an electronic eye but features a three-fingered hand that has sensitivity and adroitness to rival a human’s. When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was introduced to the robot on a recent trip to Japan, she gingerly thrust her hand into the robot’s. Immediately, the metallic fingers softly closed in what appeared to be a friendly handshake. “Oh, how gentle,” declared Thatcher. Such favorable first impressions also translate into lucrative export contracts. In 1981 Japan shipped $23 million (U.S.) worth of robot technology abroad, three times the figure in 1980.

The phenomenal inroads made by Japanese companies in the international market have raised fears among competitor nations that they will be left behind in the robotics revolution. Spurred on by the Japanese example, the United States entered the fray in the early 1970s when General Motors became the first major industrial buyer by ordering more than 50 welders. But now, with robots in use in everything from the aerospace to the electronics industries, U.S. firms have regained much of the lost ground. According to the Robot Institute of America, there were 3,500 robots at work in U.S. industry in 1980. Today, the figure has almost doubled, to 6,500. And Harley Shaiken, a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, predicts in a recent study that robot sales

in the United States will grow at a rate of 25 per cent a year for the next decade. At present, sales are hampered by the recessionary woes of potential customers. But, by 1990, Shaiken expects annual sales to total $800 million (U.S.).

The stakes in the competition are high. And the point has not been missed by Western European governments and companies. With healthy injections of government cash for research and development, West German firms have taken the undisputed lead in robotics on the Continent. Roughly 4,000 robots now toil in German industry, more than in all of Europe’s other major industrial countries combined.

French industry spokesmen concede that they came late to the game. Renault, the state-owned car manufacturer, was the first to introduce robots in 1974, and about 2,000 robots are now in use there. But the French contend that their enthusiastic embrace of the new technology has propelled them into the front ranks of innovation with the Americans and the Japanese. Already, at one of France’s leading robotics research labs, a rubberlike skin mixed with metals has been developed that can register pressure sensitivity when touched. The skin can be stretched over two claws to produce a “feeling” robot like that being developed by the Japanese. With some pride, French spokesmen also point out that Japanese welding robots are equipped with French-made electron heads. The most dramatic French challenge to Japan, however, was unveiled last May at Renault’s industrial vehicle subsidiary at Boutheon, in southeast France. Called the Flexible Workshop, it is a factory virtually without workers, capable of producing 100 truck transmissions a day.

The most obvious implication of the onslaught for workers is that assemblyline jobs will be lost on a massive scale. One consolation is that some employees will be retrained to supervise the automated operations. Indeed, from an initial opposition to robots, major French unions have given their support to their introduction, provided they have a voice in the process and in the retraining of manpower. But, as more robots are introduced, that support may evaporate when job losses start to outstrip gains.

Inevitably, if Canadian industries are not to lose even more ground to foreign competitors in the productivity race, they, too, must embrace robotics with enthusiasm, however belated. But, for the blue-collar work force, like that of other nations, it is not a development that can be viewed with equanimity.

With Myrna Foley in Tokyo, Marci McDonald in Paris, Peter Lewis in Brussels and William Lowther in Washington.

Myrna Foley

Marci McDonald

Peter Lewis

William Lowther