Robots Ride to the Rescue Where Workers Can’t Be Found

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Many are doing brisk business as companies around Eastern Europe accelerate an automation drive. At Rittal, a maker of switch gears and control cabinets for industrial robots, orders rose 15 percent last year and have jumped 25 percent since January.

“Companies aren’t able to produce more, so their competitiveness is falling,” said Jaromir Zeleny, Rittal’s managing director. “They don’t want to be so dependent on people.”

Cost is another factor. Eastern Europe became a manufacturing powerhouse by luring multinationals with low wages. That advantage is ebbing, though. Average monthly pay in the Czech Republic rose 8 percent last year to about 1,160 euros, or about $1,400. Although one-third the average in Germany, they are expected to keep climbing.

Businesses say letting in more foreign workers would help. But the conservative government has pledged to limit immigration, and recently set strict caps on foreign work visas.

There are longer-term trends at play, as well. Families aren’t having children fast enough to replace people heading into retirement. Automation, one argument goes, could compensate. Skoda, the nation’s biggest automaker, said last month that it would “significantly accelerate” automation to face demographic changes and wage pressures.

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