February 12, 2017      

According to the Robotic Industries Association, the North American industrial automation market has been growing at a healthy rate. The total number of units has grown from 17,887 worth $1.1 billion in 2011 to 30,875 units worth $1.8 billion in 2016.

Carmakers and automotive components manufacturers are still the largest users and purchasers of robots at 70 percent of the market, reported the Robotics Industries Association (RIA).

“That’s nothing surprising in terms of industry growth,” said Alex Shikany, director of market analysis at the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), the umbrella organization for the RIA.

However, other industries, including food and consumer goods, semiconductors and electronics, and metals, are also increasingly adopting automation as units become more affordable and flexible.

Business Takeaways:

  • Although the automotive industry is still leading the growth of robots in manufacturing, new applications and sectors are helping with the adoption rate, says the RIA.
  • Cobots, improving machine vision, and IoT are among the technologies that are prompting interest among SMEs.
  • The ongoing spread of North American industrial automation isn’t without challenges, including a need for standards, explaining how automation and reshoring don’t threaten jobs, and uncertain public policy.

“The great thing we see is double-digit growth in non-automotive industries, end effectors, smaller robots, and collaborative robots,” Shikany told Robotics Business Review. “It’s leading to new applications and new industries. It’s exciting.”

“There are lots of applications in electronics and mechanical assembly,” said Bob Doyle, director of communications at the RIA. “Material handling and welding have grown the fastest, with assembly in third place.”

Smaller companies join automation wave

Smaller in market share but also growing are plastics and rubber, as well as pharmaceuticals. Of the more than 30,000 robots that shipped last year, 90 percent were articulated robotic arms. Small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) are a particularly bright spot.

Jeff Burnstein is president of A3

RIA and A3 President Jeff Burnstein

“The trend toward smaller companies has been continuing for some time now,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the RIA. “Interest has grown dramatically, not just in exploring automation, but [also in] actual investment.”

“Facilities automation is already being adopted past manufacturing,” he added. “For instance, in distribution, there’s the mobile base at Amazon, and there are more cases of robotic arms moving around warehouses. We’re watching the trend toward putting industrial robot arms on mobile robot bases.”

“This will accelerate — we’ve seen drones used indoors to deliver materials within factories — all kinds of applications,” Burnstein said. “The whole arena of robotics is more than just the definition of what we track.”

Statistical definitions for North American industrial robotics

While the RIA focuses on industrial automation rather than aerial drones, autonomous vehicles, or service robots, it is watching broader applications of robotics and artificial intelligence.

“We’re interested in expanding and monitoring,” said Shikany. “There’s an ongoing effort as new types of robots are used commercially in new sectors. We have a committee guiding decisions.”

“We’re also in touch with leading associations, since imaging and machine vision are driving forces in how successful those technologies are,” he said.

The RIA carefully compiles its statistics from reporting robotics suppliers and its growing membership.

“Most companies report to us,” Shikany said. “We keep adding companies.”

Industrial Robots Shipped in 2016

  • Americas: 38,000
  • China: 90,000
  • Europe: 54,000

— RIA

Although other organizations such as the International Federation of Robotics have reported higher numbers for North American industrial automation, that’s because of different methodologies, Burnstein said.

“We share our stats every quarter with them,” he said. “North America is the lion’s share of the number that the IFR reports, actually combined with a smaller proportion of data it sorts from elsewhere — for instance, the Japanese Robot Association, which may be selling robots into our market.”

Enabling and emerging technologies

As robots become more dexterous and get smarter, they’ll be better able to help SMEs that may not have considered automation until now, said Doyle.

“Machine vision is key to machine learning and is certainly going to have a huge impact on automation,” Burnstein said. “We’re tracking it closely.”

American industrial robotics will include IoT.

The industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will also be important for collecting and understanding all the data gathered by robots, Shikany said.

“IIoT will make an impact on how manufacturing is done across the world,” he said. “Robots are a big piece, as are machine vision and motion control.”

Burnstein will be speaking on robotics, machine vision, and IoT at the Industry of Things World USA event next week.

More robotic co-workers

“We anticipate growth in collaborative applications, but not necessarily new products,” said Burnstein. “It could be more traditional robots with advanced safety features that work at full speed when people aren’t around.”

“This provides the advantages of a proven technology that can be made to operate more safely,” he said.

Refitting existing robots with advanced vision systems and other safety features can also make it easier for manufacturers to apply automation to more processes without the expense of a completely new installation, Burnstein said.

“We’re in the early stages of developing a standard; it’s coming quickly, and we want to make sure we’re addressing the issue,” Burnstein said.

More on Global and North American Industrial Robotics:

The U.S. economy needs robotics

ITR Economics is expecting a mild recession in 2019, but for the next two years, we expect continued growth in all areas,” Burnstein said. “SMEs will continue to purchase automation, increase their technical acumen, and update factories.”

What about widespread fears of robots and AI leading to job losses?

“The real threat to jobs is when companies can’t stay competitive and then shut down or move operations overseas,” Burnstein replied. “Strong robotics growth actually saves jobs and creates higher-paying jobs.”

“We see automation helping to keep jobs in the U.S., and cobots are a key enabler to people and robots working together,” he said.

Nearly a third of senior manufacturing executives plan to add production capacity in the U.S. within this decade, according to a 2015 Boston Consulting Group study cited by the Reshoring Institute. Three-quarters of companies are looking to shorten their supply chains and be closer to their customers and end users, said the institute.

RIA logo

Also to serve North American industrial automation, A3 announced last month that it is expanding in Mexico, where robotics sales tripled in 2015. A3 Mexico will organize networking events, collaborate on industry standards, and help develop system integrator certification.

“Of course, changes in taxes and regulations would also affect reshoring and automation,” Burnstein said, referring to the policies still emerging from the new Trump administration.