WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Sales of robots, particularly in China, are booming and analysts expect more of the same in 2017.
The rise of automation and its impact on jobs has dominated headlines for a while now, whether it’s because Foxconn are cutting 1.2 million jobs, or companies like Accenture and Bridgewater are automating large portions of their workforce. And robots, which look set this year to be granted their own legal status as “Electronic persons,” amid revelations that they can now learn from each other, along with artificial intelligence (AI), are columnists favourite whipping posts.
Now, as we’d expect, reports show that last year was a good one for the robotics industry. North American businesses ordered 35,000 robots in 2016, a 10 percent increase from 2015, according to a report on Tuesday by trade organization Robotic Industries Association. Meanwhile, sales on those orders in the region reached an all-time high of $1.9 billion last year, beating the previous record set in 2015 of $1.8 billion.
“We really haven’t quite seen anything quite like this,” said Jeff Burnstein, CEO of the Robotic Industries Association.
The automobile industry, which took shipment of over 20,000 robots and their components in 2016, is partly driving the boom. The food and consumer goods industries, electronics, plastics, and life sciences were also big customers.
Overall, manufacturers shipped nearly 31,000 robots in North America last year. US companies ordered 27,000 robots followed by Canada with 2,700, and Mexico with 4,700.
Robots that place and pick up objects on factory assembly lines were the most popular models. Those that help with packing came next followed by ones that cut or forge materials, explained Burnstein.
Although robot prices have declined over the years, the main reason companies want robots is to better compete with each other on speed and productivity, Burnstein said. Technological advances that allow robots to better track their location in warehouses and avoid injuring humans who work alongside them are also playing large roles in the boom.
Still, North American countries are behind others in adopting robots. The Robotic Industries Association does not track robotic orders or shipments outside of North America, but Burnstein said “China is the world’s fastest growing robot user” and that European companies are also on the rise.
Burnstein is a board member of another robotic trade group, the International Federation of Robotics, that compiles worldwide statistics on robot orders and shipments. That organization has not yet released it’s 2016 data.
But according to previous IFR reports, China dominated in 2015 with roughly 69,000 robots shipped in that country, followed by Japan with 35,000 robots and South Korea with 38,000 robots.
Alex Shikany, director of market analysis for the Robotic Industries Association, said the trade group does not project future shipments. However, he said that for the past four years, the overall North American robotic market has grown nearly 13% annually, and the group does not expect any changes to that outlook.
Burnstein cautioned, however, that the US robot market is tied closely to automobile manufacturers. When they introduce new car models, they invariably buy more robots and related equipment.
“When they slow down, their investments go down,” Burnstein said.