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Revenues rose by about 10 percent last year and the company aims to double robot sales this year, he said

“It could have been a lot higher based on the demand, but we could barely keep up with the market,” Zentai said.

The Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimates that 9,900 robots were installed in central and eastern Europe last year, up 28 percent from the year before.

The IFR projects a 21-percent compound annual growth rate in robot shipments to the region by the end of this decade, nearly double the European average.

 

Micro gas generators are seen at the Hirtenberger Automotive Safety factory in Papa
Micro gas generators are seen at the Hirtenberger Automotive Safety factory in Papa, Hungary, January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

 

Robot density, a measure of multipurpose industrial robots per 10,000 workers in the manufacturing sector, was the highest in Slovakia at 135, followed by 101 in the Czech Republic, 57 in Hungary and 32 in Poland, according to IFR figures in 2016.

Poland‘s number is low thanks to the more than a million workers from neighboring Ukraine, which has a similar culture and language, on work permits that are relatively easy to obtain. Jakub Gontarek, an expert at a Polish employers’ union, said it was still cheaper for Polish companies to hire them or to pay more than to automate.

Austria-based Engel, which supplied plastic overmolding machines to Hirtenberger, said while two-thirds of the machines it sold in Hungary were automated in 2017, that proportion has risen to more than 75 percent for new orders.

 

Engel also automates existing machines, the chief executive of its Hungarian unit, Albert Vincze, said

“Right now we are installing and launching four such robots at our clients and we are in talks with another client about the after-sales installation of three robots where the purchase is clearly driven by the need to replace human labor,” he said.

 

 

Automation brings new challenges, however. Vincze noted that programming, maintenance and servicing of the machines require highly skilled workers, which are also in short supply.

Engel is trying to hire secondary school and university graduates right out of school, offering a 3-5-year training program and sufficiently attractive conditions so that they re-think plans to go abroad.

“We operate in the same environment (as our clients), and we have just as much difficulty finding qualified professionals as anyone else,” Vincze said.

 

PRODUCTIVITY

Overall labor productivity in the region falls short of the EU average based on data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but higher spending on machinery and automation has led to modest gains.

Capital intensity relative to hours worked rose by 2.9 percent in Poland between 2000 and 2014, followed by 2.2 percent in Hungary and 1.7 percent in the Czech Republic, OECD data showed. The numbers compare to 0.7 percent and 0.3 percent growth over the same period in Germany and France.

Banks active in Hungary, such as K&H, the local unit of Belgian KBC, Austrian Raiffeisen Bank International and OTP Bank, told Reuters they expect higher investment into automation to continue.

 

 

Dinax, which sells water treatment products to Hungarian wellness hotels and swimming pools, employs just 30 people but was forced to automate after struggling to find students for temporary summer work, even after hiking wages by up to 20 percent in 2016 and 15 percent last year.

After buying $18,000 worth of programmable weight controllers and pumps from Wisconsin-based Rice Lake Weighing Systems and Jacksonville, Florida-based Stenner Pumps, Dinax can now fill 50 percent more of its liquid product into plastic containers, saving the work of two people per day.

It plans a further $20,000 investment to automate the same process for powdered chemicals.

“We hit two birds with one stone: on the one hand, we can boost our capacities. On the other hand, we do not need to hire more people,” said business manager Tibor John.

 

(Additional reporting by Michael Kahn in PRAGUE and Marcin Goettig in WARSAW; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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