Japan’s rapidly aging population has led to a projected shortage of caregivers, and the country’s industry giants are now scrambling to take part in this booming market of elderly care services. Panasonic and Toyota, for examples, are some of the major players that have entered the emerging sector of nursing care robots for the elderly. Their efforts are strongly backed by the government, which has made robotics central to their industrial policy agenda.
On January 23, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare announced “New Strategy for Robots”. Under this five-year plan, government will support the utilization of robots in different sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing, infrastructure, and other industries. In particular, the government has set the biggest share of the program’s budget to the nursing and medicine sector, amounting to nearly JPY 5.3 billion. This sum also represents 33% of Japan’s 2015 budget for funding robotics developments.
“Wearable robot technologies have a price advantage and they will drive the market for nursing care robots in Japan,” said Harrison Po, industry consultant for Topology, a division of TrendForce. Wearable robots can assist users to maintain their mobility and will become the main product in the nursing care robot market within the next twenty years (2015-2035). The elderly and the disabled depend on assistive technologies that are safe, well-built, and affordable. Likewise, their caregivers need wearable robots to prevent work-related injuries as well as to deal with the ever-increasing workload.
Currently in Japan, nursing care robots that have been approved for real-world use are relatively few, but many products are under development or clinical trials. The Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL), a wearable robot developed by Japanese robotics company Cyberdyne, is the only powered exoskeleton certified for clinical use in Japan and Europe and has a good sales record. Nonetheless, the development process of wearable robots in Japan have reached the maturation stage. The country has seen many new models of wearable robots released by new market entrants such as ActiveLink and Innophys. The established automakers, including Honda and Toyota, have also invested considerable resources over the years to develop assistant robots. Consequently, wearable robots, with their single-function designs and low prices, are more suited for consumer adoption than the multi-function nursing robots that may cost a hundred times more.
Po further noted the number of people in Japan aged 65 years or older is projected to increase by 7.3 million between 2010 and 2025. During that period, their representation in the country’s population will rise from 23% to 30%. As for the size of the professional caregiving/nursing labor pool, Japan had around a force of 1.3 to 1.5 million in 2010. By 2025, the country will need up to 2.5 million caregivers to cope with the growing elderly care demand. “The rising need for caregivers will also lift the demand for inexpensive nursing care robots,” said Po. Therefore, Japan’s “New Strategy for Robots” will further accelerate the development of the more economical wearable robots in order to address the labor shortage in the elderly care service market.