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As at other German industrial companies, VW’s workforce is growing older and as baby boomers begin to retire between 2015 and 2030, under demographic trends there will be fewer young people to take their place.
Writing in Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Monday, Horst Neumann, VW board member for human resources, said some of the retiring baby boomers’ jobs would be filled by robots, not people.
He insisted the robots would take over monotonous or unergonomic tasks, while humans would focus on more highly skilled jobs. The trend towards higher automation would not contribute towards increased unemployment in Germany, he added.
“We have the possibility to replace people with robots and nevertheless we can continue to hire the same amount of young employees. Or put the other way: we would not be able to compensate for this outflow of retirees by [hiring] young employees.” Mr Neumann added that a factory devoid of humans is “neither realistic nor desirable”.
Automation has enabled high-cost Germany to retain a global lead in vehicle production. But adding more robots remains a highly sensitive subject as workers fear that advances in robotics might one day make them surplus to requirements. The automotive industry is already by far the biggest user of industrial robots but it sees further potential for their use. For example, robots remain comparatively rare in the final assembly area where workers must carry out intricate tasks in the vehicle interior.
This could change as a new generation of lightweight robots are able to work side by side with employees rather than inside a safety cage. Mr Neumann said robots that carry out routine tasks cost VW about €5 an hour over their lifetime, including maintenance and energy costs. That compares with about €40 an hour in labour costs per worker in Germany (including wages, pension and healthcare costs) and less than €10 in China.
“New generations of robots will likely be even cheaper. We must make use of this cost advantage,” the VW board member wrote. Economists view Germany’s rapidly ageing population as one of the biggest threats to its long-term competitiveness.
At 21 per cent, Germany already has a higher share of its population over the age of 65 than any other country bar Japan. The latter has spearheaded the use of robots to offset an ageing population.
Between 2010 and 2030, the stock of economically active Germans is set to decline by almost 10 per cent to 39.1m, according to a 2012 report by the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training.
Daimler, Volkswagen’s German rival, expects that in 10 years half of its staff will be over the age of 50.
Source: Financial Times