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Report: 2020 robot sales up in North America, non-automotive takes off


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North American orders of robots from non-automotive sectors surpassed automotive robot orders in 2020 for the first time ever, says a new report from the Robotic Industries Association (RIA).

Sales of robotic units in North America increased 3.5 per cent in 2020 over 2019. This growth was driven by a strong Q4 that was the second-best quarter ever for North American robotic sales, with a 63.6 per cent increase over Q4 2019, says the RIA, which is part of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3).

North American companies ordered 31,044 robotic units, valued at $1.572 billion in 2020. In Q4, companies ordered 9,972 units valued at $479 million.

“The surge in robot orders that we’re seeing, despite the pandemic, demonstrates the growing interest in robotic and automation solutions,” says Jeff Burnstein, A3 president, in a statement. “It’s promising to see the growth of robotics in new applications and reaching a wider group of users than ever before.”

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Consumer behaviour shifts

Year-over-year orders in life sciences increased by 69 per cent, food and consumer goods grew by 56 per cent, and plastics and rubber saw a 51 per cent increase. Automotive orders increased 39 per cent in 2020.

“In 2020, we saw two trends in particular that propelled growth in non-automotive orders for robotics technology,” says John Bubnikovich, chief regional officer, North America for KUKA Robotics.

“First, the automation competence level in general industry has grown, and that matured into greater demand for the technology. Second, consumer behaviour shifted significantly and the expectations created by this shift were tough to satisfy without automation.”

At the same time, Bubnikovich says, supply chain disruptions and instability in the workforce made industries accelerate automation strategies.

COVID changes priorities

The same trends are being noticed by other major robot manufacturers.

“With the changes in people’s personal buying behaviour caused by COVID, robots have been utilized in record numbers to allow for the fulfillment of orders in the e-commerce space while allowing for correct social distancing practices,” says Dean Elkins, segment leader, handling at Yaskawa Motoman.

“In addition, robots largely aided in the production of personal protection and testing equipment and the medical devices needed to keep our society healthy and safe.”

“We have seen a substantial increase in activity in non-automotive sectors, as customers focus on making their production lines more flexible and better able to efficiently achieve high-mix, lower-volume production in response to constantly evolving customer demands,” says Mark Joppru, vice-president, consumer segment and service robotics for ABB’s Robotics and Machine Automation USA division.

“In food applications, for example, where robots were traditionally used to automate simpler processes like case loading, they are increasingly being commissioned for higher value processes, like directly preparing food, resulting in improvements to food safety and hygiene. While these trends have existed for several years, COVID has changed perceptions and priorities for customers, accelerating the adoption of robotic automation.”

‘Sense of urgency’

In August of 2020, A3 reported on the strain to supply chains and economic uncertainty due to COVID-19. Alex Shikany, A3 vice-president, membership and business intelligence, noted that despite a drop in orders, industry leaders showed optimism about the remainder of 2020, and accurately predicted the strong finish to 2020.

“The pandemic has created a sense of urgency for manufacturing companies to invest in automation like never before,” says Mike Cicco, president and CEO of FANUC America.

“Traditionally, companies have implemented automation to reduce cost, increase output and improve quality. However, the pandemic has added an additional factor that is driving manufacturers to re-examine their supply chain to increase flexibility, minimize disruptions, and move it closer to their customers.

“With this mindset, there are more opportunities for scaling robotic applications across multiple facilities, especially for larger companies. The untapped potential for automation is a promising sign for our industry; the opportunities for automation today are truly limitless.”

To help educate users and potential users about how to successfully apply robotics and automation, A3 will hold Automate Forward, a virtual automation trade show and conference from March 22-26.