Don?t look now, but when it comes to buying industrial robots France is neck and neck with the Czech Republic. No offense meant to the Czechs, or the French, for that matter, but that?s a comparison that borders on the incredulous.
So why is there such a mismatch between the dynamism of the French high-tech robotics sector and poor performance in terms of the number of robots installed in domestic factories?
And what is the country doing to remedy the situation?
According to the latest figures from the Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the estimated annual sales of industrial robots in France plummeted to just 2,161 units in 2013, a staggering 27% less than 2012.
The World Robotics 2014 – Industrial Robots report also reveals that the robot supply to the automotive industry – the largest single user of industrial robots in France – and almost all other industries ‘decreased considerably’ throughout 2013.
In the same year, sales of welding robots fell by 75 percent from 824 units to 204 units, the ‘lowest level ever recorded.’
Worryingly, there are also signs that the poor performance is part of an ongoing trend, with overall robot sales currently far below the peak level of 3,800 units achieved in 2000.
“Between 2008 and 2013, industrial robot supply in France decreased by 4 percent on average per year,” says Gudrun Litzenberger, Director of the Statistical Department at the IFR.
Bruno Bonnell, partner at Robolution Capital admits that there is a mismatch between the dynamism of French start-ups like Aldebaran and Balyo and the moribund performance of the industrial robotics sector, which he says is largely due to the ‘unfortunate decline’ of the country’s broader industrial base over the last thirty years.
When compared to other similarly sized European countries like Germany or Italy, he also argues that France has been ‘late in understanding the benefits of robotization,’ which he attributes to the combination of a ‘twisted perception’ that robots steal human jobs and weakness in investment in the country’s industrial sector.
“This would be bad news if we were not taking into account the amazing progress of today’s robotics. The fact that we have a weak installed base of robots gives us an opportunity to acquire much more efficient robots and close up the gap,” he says.
National and local initiatives
One high profile effort to close this gap is the French Robot Initiative, a $129.6 million (?100 million) plan launched by the French government last April that aims to kick start the country’s industrial robotics sector and establish it as a world-leading competitor by 2020.
In recent months, a good deal of progress has also been made at the regional level. In October, the Midi-Pyrenees regional authority launched its ‘Factory of the Future’ plan to help local SMEs to finance a support plan for industrial robotics installations.
In response to a survey of firms in the region, which revealed that 65.7 percent of them had no industrial robots at all and identified ‘a real need for efficient robotic tools,’ the region will work alongside a range of organizations, including the multi-technical services organization SPIE Sud-Ouest, to provide individual assistance to about 100 companies seeking to modernize their industrial facilities.
“France has taken action and the field is now prepared for a French robotics revolution. Having a strong start-up base and research activity in robotics will definitely help to build up much better robotic activity in France. There is no doubt that these efforts will create a dynamic for the French industrial robotics sector,” says Bonnell.