Global ‘robotics race’ intensifies with proposal for German robotics strategy

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Global ‘robotics race’ intensifies with proposal for German robotics strategy

Elías Lundström
Corporate Communication & Public Affairs

The VDMA Robotics + Automation Association has unveiled a new strategy paper on robotics and automation. The move aims to level an “uneven playing field” among nations competing for global market leadership according to the association.

The competition among leading nations in the field of robotics and automation is growing. As global robot installations reached record levels last year, discussions are mounting about where the future industry leaders will be located.

Acknowledging this development, the Frankfurt-based VDMA R+A last Thursday announced a new strategy paper on robotics and automation, suggesting new targets and initiatives for advancing Germany’s position as a global leader.

“This is a matter of securing the stability, resilience, and sovereignty of Europe,” Patrick Schwarzkopf, Managing Director of the VDMA R+A, says in an interview with HowToRobot.

“Without automation to secure cost-effective manufacturing in a range of areas, including renewable energy, we risk total dependence on China and other regions of the world,” he adds.

Germany’s manufacturing industry was the 4th most automated in the world – ahead of China – with a robot density of 397 robots per 10,000 employees in 2021. However, China is already expected to have overtaken Germany’s position, following several years of rapid growth in robot adoption.

VDMA: Germany must outpace global robot growth

The aim of the newly launched strategy paper is to inform Germany’s first national robotics roadmap, currently in discussions and spearheaded by German chancellor Olaf Scholz and his ‘Future Council’. The paper suggests a five-year plan with two main goals for Germany in 2028:

  1. Industrial robot adoption in Germany should grow at a faster rate than the comparable world market. This should secure Germany a spot among the top 3 larger countries with the highest robot density says Patrick Schwarzkopf.
  2. Germany should also be a technology leader in service robotics, successfully scaling applications and fields such as transport and logistics, laboratory automation, the hotel industry, and professional cleaning.

Reaching these goals will require massive action, Patrick Schwarzkopf says, as other governments are already investing heavily in these areas.

“US, China, and other countries are putting a lot of government money into subsidies, including tax incentives, in their industrial policy. It’s a huge race where one country wants to be better than the other,” he says and points to the US Inflation Reduction Act and China’s five-year robotics plan as two examples of policies that are “creating an uneven playing field” for manufacturers in Europe.

“European companies are struggling to keep up. The US and China are investing billions into the production of for example batteries, photovoltaics, and semiconductors, and that’s not happening nearly to the same extent in Germany and Europe,” Patrick Schwarzkopf says.

Tax incentives and other initiatives suggested

The strategy paper suggests a series of recommendations to boost robotics and automation in Germany.

These include, among others:

  • More favorable financing conditions and better access to venture capital for providers of robotics and automation, including removing the 1M euro cap on R&D tax incentives in Germany.
  • Creating a level playing field and cost structures for users of robotics and automation, including creating investment incentives to use domestic providers and introducing new depreciation methods using the diminishing balance method and immediate depreciation at 100%.
  • Streamlining and harmonizing standards globally, including increased use of self-certification.
  • Increasing access to talent, including doubling the number of courses in robotics and automation at universities
  • Strengthening research and its application and scaling by SMEs, including expanding the national research program in robot safety, human-robot collaboration, and AI.

The complete list can be found in VDMA’s strategy paper.

Automation necessary to secure domestic production in growth areas

These initiatives are important for especially two reasons according to Patrick Schwarzkopf.

For one, a high level of automation is necessary to secure a fast and cost-effective domestic production in a range of growth areas, some of which Germany – and Europe – are at risk of falling behind with globally. These include the renewable energy sector with the production of photovoltaics, heat pumps, fuel cells, and electrolyzers.

“We’ve already lost the race in battery cell production. Most machine builders in this area are from China now, and new battery factories are often built by Chinese companies,” Patrick Schwarzkopf says.

He is, however, still optimistic that domestic production can be secured in other areas such as fuel cells.

“The automatic production of fuel cells hasn’t been solved yet in a way that makes fuel cells truly competitive as a technology. But with the right production technology – including robotics and automation – we can help fuel cells achieve an economic breakthrough in a couple of years,” he says.

The other main reason for accelerating the adoption of robotics and automation in Germany according to Patrick Schwarzkopf is: demographics. The population is aging and there are not enough young people to take over for those that retire. In the coming years, Germany could be losing about 400,000 people from the workforce, which, by 2035, will amount to around 4-6 million people, he says.

“1 out of every 10 employees will be missing in 12 years, and it’s going to have a devastating impact on our standard of living, bringing down our GDP and prosperity. If we don’t have people, we can’t manufacture and we can’t uphold the service industries. That is why we urgently need to speed up robot adoption,” Patrick Schwarzkopf concludes.