A total of 19,337 robots valued at $1.17 billion US were sold to companies in North America in 2011, beating the previous record of 18,228 robots sold in 2005. When sales by North American robot suppliers to companies outside of North America are included, the totals are 22,126 robots valued at $1.35 billion US.
Compared to 2010, North American orders were up 47 percent in units and 38 percent in dollars.
Helping fuel the increase was revitalized demand by the automotive industry, said Paul Kellett, director of market analysis for RIA.
"Robots sold to automotive component suppliers in North America jumped 77 percent over 2010, while robots sold to automotive OEMs increased 59 percent," he noted.
Sales to non-automotive customers grew 27 percent, led by metalworking industries (up 56 percent) and semiconductor/electronics/photonics (up 24 percent). In terms of applications, big increases were seen in spot welding (up 78 percent), arc welding (up 66 percent), assembly (up 63 percent), coating and dispensing (up 42 percent) and material handling (up 30 percent).
The fourth quarter of 2011 was the strongest quarter ever recorded by RIA (the association began reporting data in 1984) in terms of units ordered, with 5,721 robots valued at $317.5 million US. The fourth quarter was up 61 percent in units and 40 percent in dollars over the same period in 2010.
"The growing interest in automation combined with the strengthening of North American manufacturing industries, particularly automotive, contributed to a great year for the robotics industry," said Jeff Burnstein, president of RIA. "We sensed this early in the year when we had a very strong Automate 2011 show in Chicago in March. Current users were telling us they were looking to purchase more robots, vision systems and related products, and people who had never purchased a robot were showing strong interest in near-term purchases," Burnstein added. "Robot suppliers and integrators told us they were running full-out to meet customer demand and one of the limiting factors was a shortage of qualified application engineers and other technical people needed to develop and integrate new applications," Burnstein noted.
"I think another factor we saw in 2011 was the decision by many U.S. manufacturing companies to keep manufacturing at home by automating, and in some cases, bringing back manufacturing that had previously been sent overseas," said John Dulchinos, president and CEO at Adept Technology, Pleasanton, Calif., and chair of RIA's statistical collection committee.
RIA's quarterly statistics report is based on data supplied by member companies representing an estimated 90 percent of the North American market.
What will 2012 hold? Burnstein said RIA does not make robotics sales forecasts, but he believes that if the economy remains strong, we should be looking at another good year for the robotics industry.
"Companies in every industry are now recognizing more than ever before that robotics provide unique benefits in terms of improved quality, productivity, flexibility, time to market and overall cost savings," said Burnstein. "We believe the future for robotics is very bright."