Local firms are increasingly embracing robots to increase productivity and competitiveness — a development that is poised to displace workers in the labour-abundant country.
Industrial robots are mainly in use in plastic, apparel and automobiles plants and printing firms to make products, according to import data and industry insiders.
“It saves time and increases efficiency,” said RN Paul, managing director of RFL Group.
The country’s leading plastic goods maker has 50 robots that are used to take out plastic chair, table, bucket and various other household items.
Starting from injection moulding machine to laminating poly foil on the product, the robots can perform all tasks.
It takes one minute to make a chair by automatic machine and another 30 seconds to bring out the product from the machine manually.
But a robot can take the product out within 10 seconds, saving 20 seconds on each chair, according to Paul.
As a result, utilisation of machine increases.
“That gives me capital expenditure savings. We would have to buy more machines and moulds to ensure the same production that I could avoid. At the same time we could reduce our manpower dependence,” he added.
Industrial robot imports rose to 97 units in fiscal 2018-19 from 73 the previous year. A year earlier, 152 units of robots were brought in, according to data from customs.
Thirty-two units of industrial robots were imported in fiscal 2015-16.
And the use of robotics is rising at a time when the rate of job growth has slowed down although the country registered stellar economic growth.
Between 2002-03 and 2010, 1.4 lakh jobs were created annually. The number of employment generation dipped to 95,000 per year between 2010 and 2016-17, according to labour force surveys by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
RFL started using robots a couple of years ago as their prices have come down to Tk 10 lakh each, Paul said.
“The cost is insignificant compared with human labour in this position,” he said.
Like RFL, ACI is also using robotics. The company uses six industrial robots to make tubes and plastic printing, said FH Ansarey, managing director and chief executive officer of ACI Agribusinesses.
The use of industrial robots cuts down production cost and time, increases safety and allows better space utilisation. In Bangladesh, the usage of industrial robot is increasing rapidly, especially in the automobile sector.
“These robots are arc welding-based and are mainly used for metal welding of motorcycle parts,” Ansarey said, adding that ACI Motors plans to use robots for welding in motorcycle manufacturing plants.
ACI is the distributor of Yamaha bikes in Bangladesh. Ansarey said welding and polishing are dangerous tasks and have safety hazards.
The use of robots in these area will improve the quality of work and workplace safety and be economical.
“There are practical applications of robots in highly hazardous works in Bangladesh,” he said, adding that ACI signed an agreement with a Danish robot maker to import and sell the technology here.
Concerns of Labour displacement
The increased use of robotics has created concerns as well as expectations of higher productivity and increased efficiency.
Robots will do their jobs but alternative jobs have to be created if there is any displacement, said Shahidullah Chowdhury, president of the Trade Union Centre.
New and advanced technologies are necessary for the economic development of the country.
“But that should be introduced by taking workers on board. Workers should be given advanced training so that they adopt and use the technologies,” he added.
Labour use in particular jobs is declining in factories that are using modern technology, said Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue.
Robots take up jobs that are repetitive in nature, he said, citing the example of the use of machines in sweater factories and a slump in demand for labours.
The number of low-skilled jobs is falling and female labourers in garment industry are being displaced to some extent.
It is a reality: Will create new jobs
RFL’s Paul said local firms will have to adopt advanced technology to reduce production cost to compete with Chinese and Vietnamese firms in the global market.
The man-machine ratio is very critical in the production process, where machines are very expensive. Otherwise, productivity of machines goes down significantly if the task is done by unskilled worker.
“We will gradually increase the use of robots in different critical areas,” he said.
He, however, said a lot of labour-intensive jobs are moving from China to Bangladesh due to higher labour cost there.
“We can employ our workers in those areas. Where our global competitors are using technology we have to follow the trend to enhance competitive edge so that we can compete.”
“We cannot avoid any global trend. We have to adopt it positively and find out ways to utilise our workforce in a cost-effective way for optimum benefit,” said Paul.
As the use of machines improves competitiveness and factories attract more orders owing to increased confidence of buyers, industries expand, creating increased demand for labour, said CPD’s Moazzem.
Even after that, the demand for labour will fall.
But, there are certain labour-intensive jobs where the technology is yet to be fully ready.
“Overall, the net effect until now is positive,” Moazzem said, while suggesting the government intensively monitor technology-worker trade-off and take policy decisions.
Automation can be an opportunity if the workforce is prepared with IT, engineering knowledge and skills to use new technology.
“So far, we have attained economic growth and industrial progress by using natural workforce having low skill, low academic base and low know-how.”
The path of future industrialisation should be planned by creating more targeted, skilled-induced and skilled labour force, he added.
Shamsul Alam, senior secretary and member of the General Economics Division of the Planning Commission, said it will enhance the productivity of inputs in use.
“For the time being, it appears that it will be labour-displacing. But it will create more jobs than labour displaced in the long run,” he said.
Everywhere in the world, new technology is replacing old ones.
“Apparently, that was a shock to the existing labour force. But at the end of the day, that creates more resources, more productivity and more jobs,” Prof Alam said.
“So, it is a very good and positive sign because we are going to be an industrialised country. In that context, it is quite encouraging.”
Priority would be given on job creation in the Eighth Five Year Plan of the government, he said.