We’re losing our jobs to robots, and they will destroy our economy. It makes for a great news soundbite, but has no factual basis in reality, if you look at the actual trajectory of automation and technology innovations throughout history. The global economy did not collapse when the steam engine replaced the oar; the automobile supplanted the horse; the computer became a substitute for the abacus; and the combine killed off the farmer. The same notion holds true today as robots become more ubiquitous in our daily commercial and personal lives.
From the early, post-revolutionary birth of our country in the 18th century, the agrarian economy accounted for upwards of 90% of jobs and financial activity…until farming technology evolved (see chart below). As new agricultural advancements were introduced, like the cotton gin, plow, scythe, chemical fertilizers, tractors, combine harvesters, and genetically engineered seeds, human capital (jobs) were redeployed into other growth sectors of the economy (e.g., factories, aerospace, semiconductors, medicine, etc.).
Given that human labor accounts for about 2/3 of an average company’s expense structure, it should come as no surprise that corporations are looking to reduce costs by introducing more robotics and automation into their processes. The advantages to robotics adoption are numerous and I describe many of the reasons in my article, Chainsaw Replaces Paul Bunyan:
A robot won’t ask for a raise; it always shows up on time; you don’t have to pay for its healthcare; it can work 24/7/365 days per year; it doesn’t belong to a union; dependable quality consistency is a given; it produces products near your customers; and it won’t sue for discrimination or sexual harassment.
At Sidoxia Capital Management we opportunistically identified this growing trend quite early as evidenced by our initial 2012 investment in KUKA AG (Ticker: KUKAF), a German manufacturer of industrial robots. KUKA has recently made headlines due to a bid received from Chinese home-appliance company (Midea Group: Ticker – 000333.SZ) that values the dominant German robotics leader at $5 billion. Despite KUKA’s +273% share price appreciation from the end of 2012, not many people have heard of the company. While KUKA may not have caught the attention of many U.S. investors, the company has captured a bevy of blue-chip global customers, including Daimler, Airbus Group, Volkswagen, Fiat, Boeing, and Tesla.
Rather than sitting on its hands, KUKA has done its part to develop a higher profile. In fact, President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently received a robotics demonstration from KUKA’s CEO Till Reuter at the world’s largest industrial technology trade fair in Hannover, Germany this April (picture below)
The recent multi-billion dollar bid by Midea Group has turned some onlookers’ heads, but what the potential deal really signals is the vast opportunity for robotics expansion in Asia. Rising labor costs in China, coupled with the enormous efficiency benefits of automation, have pushed China to become the largest purchasing country of robots in the world, ahead of the U.S., Japan, Korea and Germany (see chart below). However, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), in 2015, Japan remained the country with the largest number of installed robots. IFR does not expect Japan to remain the “king” of the installed robotics hill forever. Actually, IFR estimates China will leapfrog Japan over the next few years to become both the largest purchaser of robots, along with maintaining the largest installed base of robots.
In the coming months and years, there will be a steady stream of sensationalist headlines talking about the rise of the robots, and the destruction of jobs. We’ve repeatedly seen this movie before throughout history. Rather than a scary bloodbath ending, over the long-run we’ll likely see another happy ending. Any potential job losses will likely be outweighed by productivity gains, coupled with the benefits associated with more efficiently deployed labor to new growth sectors of the economy.
Even KUKA realizes the automation dynamics of the 21st century will serve as a net labor enhancer not detractor. If you don’t believe me, just ask Timo Boll, world champion table tennis player, who tested this theory vs. a KUKA robot (see video below). Ultimately, the rise of robots will lead to the rise of global growth and productivity.