Robots and Us

The Industrial Revolution made it possible for machines to help humans do work. Now, an increasing amount of work is being done by the machines themselves. We wonder: Which country has the most robots in the workplace compared to its number of human workers?

A. Germany
B. China
C. United States
D. South Korea

A. Germany is not correct.

Germany is both Europe’s largest economy and has the continent’s largest population. German industry is well-known for its high-tech and high-quality manufacturing.

The country is the world’s fourth-leading producer of automobiles, an industry that is among the most dependent on industrial robots. Three German companies — Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW — are ranked among the world’s ten largest automakers (based on annual revenues).

As of 2013, German factories had 282 robots in use per 10,000 manufacturing workers, according to data from the International Federation of Robotics. This makes Germany the third most robot-intensive economy in the world.

The automotive industry accounted for about a third of the 178,100 new industrial robots placed into service globally in 2013. Robots are also increasingly intensively used in the metals and machinery, electronics, chemicals, rubber and plastics industries, as well as the food industry.

Worldwide, there were more than 1.3 million industrial robots in use as of 2013. That works out to 62 robots per 10,000 employees.

B. China is not correct.

Over the past few decades, China’s rise as a global economic giant was fueled by its abundant supply of inexpensive labor. However, in 2011, China’s working-age population peaked and has since begun shrinking.

In order to offset this “shortage” of human workers — as well as to create more opportunities for higher-end manufacturing — Chinese firms have been rapidly increasing the number of robots they use.

In fact, in 2013 China became the largest buyer of new industrial robots. The country accounted for 20% of the 178,100 robots placed into service last year — the largest share of any country.

However, on a proportional basis, China’s overall use of industrial robots still lags far behind the other major industrial economies. Throughout its industrial sector, China has 30 robots for every 10,000 human workers.

Most of China’s robots are concentrated in its vast automotive sector. China surpassed Japan as the world’s largest auto producer in 2009, after moving past the United States in 2008 and Germany in 2006.

China’s automotive sector employed 281 robots per 10,000 workers in 2013. In comparison, the country’s other manufacturing sectors have only 14 robots per 10,000 workers.

C. United States is not correct.

The use of industrial robots to do jobs that were once done by human hands remains controversial. On the one hand, robots can alleviate human workers from having to do dull, repetitive tasks. On the other hand, robots can displace workers from well-paying manufacturing jobs.

According a study by the consulting firm McKinsey, the cost of industrial robots has fallen by nearly half relative to the price of labor since 1990. As a result, more factories can be expected to supplement or replace human workers with robotic ones — and this will likely put additional pressure on workers’ wages.

In 2013, 152 robots were deployed per 10,000 workers in the U.S. manufacturing sector — about five times the current rate in China.

Between 2008 and 2013, China’s stock of industrial robots increased at an average rate of 36% a year. The average annual increase in the United States was 12% over the same period.

Not surprisingly, China is rapidly closing the “robot gap” with the United States. In 2013, the gap was nearly 50,000 robots. However, by 2017 China is expected to have nearly 50% more robots in service than the United States (427,000 to 292,000).

D. South Korea is correct.

South Korea has the highest robot density in the world. As of 2013, 437 robots were deployed per 10,000 workers in the country’s industrial sector. That was about 35% higher than second-ranked Japan (323 robots per 10,000 workers), 60% higher than Germany, three times higher than the United States — and almost 15 times higher than China.

In absolute terms, however, Japan has more robots than any other country. In 2013, Japan’s factories had 304,000 robots in operation, compared with 182,000 in the United States, 168,000 in Germany, 156,000 in Korea and 133,000 in China.

While most of the world’s robots are used for manufacturing and industrial applications, there is an increasing number of application for “service robots.” These applications range from milking cattle to assisting doctors in surgical procedures.

The largest user of service robots, however, is the defense sector, where they are used to pilot unmanned vehicles (such as aerial drones) and dispose of bombs and mines.

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