Why Japan leads US in robot race

Toshio Iguchi is president of a small Japanese toy manufacturing company. He has only three employees, and all of them are robots. Mr. Iguchi's company illustrates the scope of robot use in Japan. While most robots in the United States are employed at large companies, Japan has succeeded in installing a significant number of robots in firms of all sizes.

''You are talking two completely different senses of what is (the apropriate) scale for robot use,'' says Paul Aron, executive vice-president of Daiwa Securities America Inc. Mr. Aron has just returned from a one-month trip to Japan.

Since robots usually allow firms to boost efficiency and cut production costs , Japan's growing lead in robot use could have serious implications for the ability of US manufacturers to compete in the world marketplace in both light and heavy industry.

For example, Japan's Pioneer Electronic Corporation cut the cost of installing electronic parts in circuit boards by 75 percent by turning the work over to robots, notes Toshio Sata, a University of Tokyo professor and robot expert. Pioneer now employs about 100 robots.

The precise productivity gains US electronic firms have achieved through robot use is difficult to judge because the companies tend to be tight-mouthed about their robot projects.

The arc-welding process used in shipbuilding and other heavy manufacturing is another example of the impact robots can have on production efficiency. When humans run arc-welding equipment, the arc is on and metal is being joined only 20 percent of the time, says Philippe Villers, president of Automatix Inc., a robot system producer.

When robots operate the arc, welding goes on 70 percent of the time, he says, producing a saving that will pay for a $100,000 welding robot in one year. There are 1,000 arc-welding robots in use in Japan but only 100 in the US.

Japan has an equally impressive lead in many robot applications. ''Japan has 10,000 robots in use vs. 5,000 for the US using a comparable definition'' of robots, Mr. Villers says.

''In terms of robot implementation, the US has sat back too long,'' waiting for the technology to mature, warns Laura Conigliaro, vice-president of Bache Halsey Stuart Shields Inc. The Japanese, on the other hand, ''did not feel they had to wait until the ideal robot comes to pass.''

Even the US firms with the most ambitious robot plans lag behind Japan. For example, General Motors Corporation is the largest potential robot user in the US. The firm plans to install 14,000 robots by 1990.

By contrast, Japan's Matsushita Electric Industrial Company has the most aggressive robot strategy in Japan. It expects to install 100,000 robots by 1990 , Mr. Aron says.

And with about 150 Japanese companies producing robots vs. an estimated 30 in the US, the Japanese lead is likely to grow. ''By 1985 Japan will have five times as many robots as the US,'' Mr. Aron says. He predicts that by then Japan will be producing about 32,000 robots a year.

Still, the US should not concede defeat in the robot battle. ''We are not out of the ball game yet by a long shot,'' Bache analyst Conigliaro says.

One hopeful fact is that the US is still believed to lead in development of the computer software that runs the smartest robots. ''Software will be the most important value added,'' in robots, Ms. Conigliaro says. But she cautions that ''it is wrong to think companies in Japan will sit back and not be creative'' in software.

The entrance of major US firms, like General Electric Company, into the robot industry also will expand US robot production.

And not all Japanese robot manufacturers will be viable in the long term. Of the 150 Japanese companies now making robots, ''not all of them will be successful in selling in Japan, let alone here. The list is much shorter of those who understand how to ship to this country,'' Ms. Congiliaro says.

Still, Japanese government policy is actively fostering growth of its robot industry.

Mr. Iguchi's toy firm, for example, leased its latest robot. The Japan Development Bank started a company that caters to small firms wanting robots. ''If you want to buy a 2 million yen robot ($8,800) it is difficult. But if you are asked to pay $300 a month (on a lease), it is easy,'' Professor Sata says.

Japanese companies that want to purchase, rather than lease, a robot also can get government aid. The Japanese government has given some $27.7 million to provide loans, at below the nation's 6.75 percent prime rate, for robot purchases, Mr. Aron says.

Once a firm has purchased a robot, it gets sizable tax benefits. The Japanese tax code provides extra depreciation for robots. The higher the depreciation expense a firm can claim, the lower its taxes. A Japanese firm can depreciate 52 .5 percent of a robot's purchase price in one year, Mr. Aron notes. ''We have a lot to learn from Japan in terms of incentives.'' Aron was one of the speakers at a recent Japan Society seminar on robots.

The incentives have led many Japanese companies to build their own robots in-house and then sell them outside.

As a result, the Japan has a tremendous number of eningeers working on robot design and implementation. For example, Hitachi Ltd., ''has 500 members of its staff working on robots,'' Mr. Aron says. By contrast, Unimation Inc. the largest US robot producer, has 90 robot engineers, a company spokesman notes.

The products Japanese engineers develop will increasingly be targeted for the export market. Forecasts of the Japanese robot industry's size in in 1990 run as high as $5 billion. And Mr. Aron notes that ''their plan calls for exporting 20 percent by 1990.''

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