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Japan Is Figuring Out How to Deliver Goods Untouched by Humans

Source: Bloomberg, 2 July 2020

Getting products from one place to another with as little human contact as possible is becoming an imperative for businesses as retailers, warehouses and transport providers adapt to the coronavirus pandemic, seeking to minimize the risk of infections to their employees and customers.

Tsubakimoto Chain Co. is seeing more demand for its sorting and conveyor systems as companies seek ways to move things around, while startup Hacobu sees an opportunity to boost use of its online platform for trucks to exchange information as they load and unload goods at warehouses, a process that’s still mostly done on paper.

The need for automation is especially acute in Japan, where a labor shortage was already putting pressure on companies to find ways to run their businesses with less people. Now, that transition is being spurred on by the pandemic, which has boosted online buying and raised concerns among shoppers about being infected by items delivered to their doors. All told, the market for next-generation logistics systems in Japan is set to more than double to 651 billion yen ($6 billion) through 2025 from 2018, according to researcher Fuji Keizai.

“Demand for humanless systems will keep growing,” Masafumi Okamoto, division manager at Osaka-based Tsubakimoto, said in an email. More families are turning to electronic commerce to buy household goods, and the manufacturer is getting more inquiries for its automated equipment, he said.

Daifuku Co., an 83-year-old company that makes and sells material-handling equipment, has seen its shares climb. Its market capitalization topped 1 trillion yen in mid-May.

“Daifuku will lead the way to a new normal in the post-Covid era,” said Toshiharu Morita, an analyst at SBI Securities. “Its visibility for mid- and long-term growth is high,” he said, adding that Daifuku is one of the top global players in the industry with its solid technology.

Above Robotics, a San Francisco-based startup, offers services to stitch together various autonomous logistics and transportation systems. Its cloud-based software can get shipping companies, warehouses and driverless vehicles to communicate directly and handle goods with fewer humans in between. Above Robotics has had inquiries from companies in Japan, South Korea and other parts of Asia, according to Dirk Beth, a director at the company.