The U.S. manufacturing workforce is among the most productive in the world. U.S. manufacturing productivity (measured as output per hour) increased 2.5 percent in 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That follows a 2 percent jump in 2013, and it marks five straight years of productivity increases.
Looking deeper, we find that manufacturing output rose by 3.9 percent in 2014, while the number of hours worked increased by only 1.3 percent. In short, we are producing a lot more stuff without working a lot more hours. How is that possible? Automation, of course, and, in particular, robots.
Robot orders and shipments in North America set new records in 2014, according to the Robotic Industries Association. A total of 27,685 robots valued at $1.6 billion were ordered from North American suppliers during 2014, an increase of 28 percent in units and 19 percent in dollars over 2013.
Now, new research from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) predicts that the robot-fueled productivity growth of the past few years could be just the tip of the iceberg.
The BCG study projects that investment in robots will accelerate markedly over the next decade, from annual growth that now averages 2 to 3 percent to around 10 percent. As a result, the total cost of manufacturing labor in 2025 could be 16 percent lower, on average, in the world’s 25 largest goods-exporting nations than it would be otherwise. Depending on the industry and country, output per worker could rise by 10 to 30 percent above productivity gains that typically come from other measures.
The biggest gains in labor savings will occur in nations that are at the forefront of deploying robots, such as South Korea, China, the U.S., Japan and Germany. When adjusted for normal inflationary increases and net of other productivity measures, manufacturing labor costs in 2025 are projected to be 18 to 33 percent lower in these economies when robots are factored in. In China, greater use of automation could compensate for much of the loss in cost competitiveness that is expected to result from rapidly rising wages and the growing challenge of finding factory workers.
Economies where robotics investment is projected to lag—and where low productivity growth is already a problem—are likely to see their manufacturing competitiveness deteriorate further over the next decade. Such nations include France, Italy, Belgium and Brazil.
Although robots have been employed in factories for decades, they currently perform only 10 percent of manufacturing tasks, on average. By 2025, BCG estimates, the portion of tasks performed by robots will approach 25 percent for all manufacturing industries worldwide.
As labor costs rise worldwide, manufacturers must take steps to improve output per worker to stay competitive. Robots and other advanced assembly technologies offer some of the best opportunities to sharply improve productivity.