May 11, 2016      

As more countries adopt industrial automation, the public policy towards this technology will grow in importance. Governments need to strike a balance between ensuring that humans can safely coexist with robots and that companies employing these machines can make full use of them. This robot law balance is part of a larger picture, where industrial automation is used to increase productivity and grow the economy.

Several countries have created or are creating regulatory frameworks to protect worker safety alongside industrial robots. For example, South Korea has developed a Robot Ethics Charter, the European Union has launched its RoboLaw project, and Germany is experimenting with “medical/biomechanical” requirements for human-robot collaboration in factories.

Industrial automation is not a new phenomenon. There have been three waves of this technology, starting in the 1970s. According to pundits, we are now in the third wave, in which robots and people are starting to work alongside each other. The reality of human-machine coexistence in the workplace is coming under increasing scrutiny in the light of new data and events. Between 1993 and 2007, industrial robot density — the number of robots per 10,000 workers — increased by over 150 percent.

Robot density by region

Industrial automation has a long ways to go worldwide.

Back in 2014, a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) showed that since the 1970s, productivity has risen alongside advances in information technology, but “real wages have stagnated.”

Painting a picture for tomorrow, the NBER predicted that intelligent machines “can mean long-term misery for all.”

In addition to this bad news, a 22-year-old worker was killed last year at a Volkswagen car factory in Germany when a robotic arm grabbed him and crushed him against a metal plate.

This article explores the different methods and approaches governments are taking to regulate and propel industrial automation — a sector already so large in 2014 that if it were its own country, it would be the 53rd largest economy in the world.

Two robot law outliers: the U.S. and China

Two countries that stand apart when it comes to regulations and industrial automation — the U.S. and China. For the U.S., industrial regulations and robot law are about ensuring worker safety.

In November 2015, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a blog on robots and worker safety. According to the authors, NIOSH is the only government agency in the U.S. “developing guidance for safe interactions between human and robot.”

The authors propose four guidelines for “human safety” with robots, including “workplace safety standards for maintenance, operation, and interaction with human workers.”

In addition, the U.S. and Canada have developed a uniform regulation — ANS/RIA R15.06 Industrial Robot Safety Standard. It lays out guidelines for “collaborative operation of robots.”

A 2007 study of industrial automation in the U.S. found that only 20 percent of respondents said their robots were “enclosed.” As many as 60 percent had a “limited barrier” or no barrier at all.

As of October 2013, there were 230,000 industrial robots in use in the U.S. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, robots have caused at least 33 cases of death and injury in the workplace during the past 30 years.

One solution is a “Federal Robotics Commission,” a concept proposed by Ryan Calo, an assistant professor of law at the University of Washington, in a paper published by the Brookings Institute. The commission wouldn’t regulate robots through rules. Instead, it would “advise” the different levels of government about robotics and artificial intelligence.

China worries about where robots come from

For China, industrial automation is a means to growing its economy. However, instead of robot laws, China is focusing on patents. China doesn’t want to control how industrial robots are used, but instead where they are coming from.

China is rapidly adopting industrial automation.

China is expected to surpass the rest of the world in robotics adoption.

In late 2015, Li Yuanchao, the vice president of China, proposed a plan that seeks to replace millions of low-paid workers with robots. A main focus is on industrial robots for manufacturing. By 2017, robot sales in China will hit 100,000, and in the same year, it is projected to have more robots operating in factories than any other country in the world.

Industrial automation is so core to China’s economic strategy that in its “Made in China 2025” blueprint, “automated machines and robotics” was the sector just second in priority to “new advanced information technology.”

The problem is, four out of five industrial robots in China are manufactured by foreign countries. In 2014, 56,000 industrial robots were sold in China, 25 percent of all industrial robot sales globally. But only 16,000 (30 percent) came from Chinese companies. To change this, China created a patent pool for industrial robotics technologies on Jan. 22, 2016.

In 2015, the city of Guangzhou announced that it plans to spend 943 billion Yuan ($145 million) on replacing humans with robot labor over the next three years. By 2020, the city wants to automate 80 percent of its manufacturing.

In Guangzhou and other cities, China’s patent pool will play a role in developing homegrown industrial automation. These patents should be interpreted at as the starting point of China’s robotics policy framework. The next step could be robot law — but China’s overarching goal, at least in the short term, will remain growing its economy.

The EU attempts to regulate industrial automation

Several countries have already taken to steps to regulate the rise of industrial automation (and robotics in general).

RoboLaw logo

In 2012, the European Union created and funded the RoboLaw project. It brought together experts from different disciplines to discuss policies regarding robots. RoboLaw’s findings were compiled in a report titled “Guidelines on Regulating Robotics” and presented to the European Parliament.

One of the report’s main themes is that stringent product-safety rules should not stifle innovation. In 2006, the European Robotics Research Network, or EURON, identified five areas where regulations need to exist before robots can take off. They are safety, security, privacy, traceability, and identifiability.

Another study, published in 2007, outlined the most important EU regulations relevant to industrial robots. Since then, however, European legislators have grappled with questions of product liability, how to encourage commercial activity, and the increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence. For more information on current regulations for industrial robots in the workplace, read this in-depth presentation prepared by ABB.

Germany looks ahead for robot law

Germany has long been an industrial automation leader and is now working on the next generation of regulations. The nation is developing its safety rules around the features that define human-robot collaboration. One of them is “medical/biomechanical” requirements, which consider at the risk of industrial robots hurting humans and the guidelines and procedures that should be in place.

Another area of German interest is “Technical Protective Measures,” which looks at ways to track all of a robot’s movements and to shut it off if the need arises. Germany needs these regulations to boost its competitiveness in the global economy. In 2015, the country announced almost €500 million ($571 million) to fuel what it calls “Industry 4.0.” One of the biggest barriers to Industry 4.0 is the need for uniform standards for industrial automation across different factories. Without this uniformity, each factory would create its own standards.

Japan and South Korea define their robotics goals

In 2015, Japan unveiled its “New Robot Strategy” to boost competitiveness by taking automation and robotics to all sectors of the economy — pharmaceuticals, automobiles, disaster relief, agriculture, and more. The Japanese government wants to increase the use of service robots by 30 percent by 2020. One of the pillars of this strategy is “smart factories” that are completely automated and work 24 hours a day.

Back in 2006, Japan proposed laws to force manufacturers to install sensors in robots to stop them from running into people and require robots to report to a central database. South Korea created its Robot Ethics Charter, which governs robots used in manufacturing. It requires that ethnical standards be programmed into the robots’ software.

Elements of South Korea's Robotic Ethics Charter

South Korea is working to define robot ethics.

Robot law yet to emerge in India, Russia

Two economic powers have little to no regulations for industrial automation, but this could soon change. In India, regulations for industrial robots are largely nonexistent.

Prime Minister Modi’s ambitious “Make in India” strategy is being challenged by robots replacing low-skilled human labor, according to Bloomberg.

For instance, Royal Enfield is using robots to paint and maintain its popular motorcycles. Four robots have replaced 15 humans. As more companies copy this model, worker safety and human job losses will grow in importance, prompting India’s state and central governments to take action.

Russia is only just beginning to make use of industrial automation. Out of the 160,000 robots sold worldwide in 2013, Russia bought only 800. In terms of “robot density,” or the ratio of robots per 10,000 people employed in factories, the average number is 60.

For Russia, it is 10. While Russia is behind other countries today, that doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow. One expert predicts that automation in Russia will grow by 60 percent this year. Will this spur Russian regulators to take action?

The prospects for industrial automation regulation

Every government taking steps to regulate industrial automation is doing so because of a common realization. They all realize that robotics presents risks and potential backlash in addition to economic opportunities.

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While productivity and competitiveness can increase exponentially, worker safety, job losses, and ethics are just as important to consider. For some countries, like China and Japan, the needs of the moment — economic growth and diversification — outweigh the risks.

In the U.S., Europe, and South Korea, incremental steps and an understanding of the inherent risks through debate and discussion are required before robot law can be expanded.

All of this leads to an important question: What are the implications for a robotics business? There are two.

First, industrial automation can bring about disruption. Even if governments are not prepared, industrial automation and robots are heading their way. As mentioned earlier, if industrial automation was a country, it would be valued at $185.3 billion. Governments that are not looking ahead will be jolted into reacting with impulsive regulations and policies.

Second, public policies toward industrial automation will be determined by each nation’s economic strategy. China, for example, isn’t likely to enact regulations that create obstacles for replacing humans with robots. It wants industrial automation to grow and transition its economy.

More on Robot Law and Industrial Automation:

The U.S., on the other hand, may be more inclined to create regulations for worker safety because its economy is much more diversified and less reliant on a single sector like manufacturing. Each country’s robot law will be different and will be a balance of its domestic challenges and vision of the future.

According to some observers, we are in the third Industrial Revolution. But perhaps a more accurate description is that we are in the fourth wave, following the harnessing of wind and steam power, electricity, and IT. This wave is being defined, not only by the coexistence of industrial robots and human workers, but also by the regulations that will define exactly how it evolves in the coming years.

Employers in the robotics industry should prepare for the legislative and regulatory obstacles that could affect how they do business in the U.S. and abroad. As the world’s largest law firm focusing solely on legal and regulatory issues affecting employers, Littler Mendelson is positioned to help businesses confront the new challenges that robotics brings. Learn more about the attorneys in Littler’s Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Automation practice group as well as the group’s specialty areas.