Japan has the oldest population in the world, and that’s causing an acute labor shortage. With almost a third of the population aged 65 and above, finding workers can be a challenge.Increasingly, companies are turning to technology as a solution — including two of the biggest convenience store franchises in Japan, FamilyMart and Lawson.This week, Lawson deployed its first robot in a convenience store, in Tokyo. FamilyMart trialled the same robots last month, and says it plans to have them working in 20 of its stores by 2022.FamilyMart has trialled a shelf-stacking robot at a Tokyo branch.Both chains are deploying a robot named Model-T, developed by Japanese startup Telexistence. Seven feet tall when extended to its full height, the robot moves around on a wheeled platform and is kitted out with cameras, microphones and sensors. Using the three “fingers” on each of its two hands it can stock shelves with products such as bottled drinks, cans and rice bowls.
“It is able to grasp, or pick and place, objects of several different shapes and sizes into different locations,” Matt Komatsu, head of business development and operations at Telexistence, tells CNN Business.This sets it apart from other robots used in stores, such as those used by Walmart to scan shelf inventory, or the ones used in warehouses to stack boxes. Warehouse robots “pick up the same thing from the same place and place it on the same platform — their movement is very limited compared to ours,” says Komatsu.
The Model-T robot — named after the Ford automobile that pioneered assembly line production in the early 20th Century — is controlled by shop staff remotely.
Lawson faces the same problem. “We have been trying to solve the labor shortage in some of our stores and through this experiment we are going to examine how the robots will help,” Ken Mochimaru, of Lawson’s corporate communications division, tells CNN Business.If it proves effective, he says that Lawson will consider rolling out the robots across more of its branches.
Compared to other countries, Japan’s labor shortage means there’s less concern that the deployment of robots will result in human job losses. Prior to Covid-19, according to a 2020 report by management consulting firm McKinsey, Japan was on track to automate 27% of existing work tasks by 2030. Although that could replace the jobs of some 16 million people, the report said, it would still leave the country short of 1.5 million workers.