Industrial robots in China to overtake EU and North America by 2017

January 28, 2015

A number of interesting fact have emerged from the recently published World Robotics 2014 Industrial Robots global study commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics. According to this study, robot sales increased by 12% to 178,132 units in 2013, by far the highest level ever recorded for one year. Growth was seen in sales of industrial robots to the automotive, the chemical, and the rubber and plastics industries, as well as to the food industry. The report states that the rubber and plastics industry has continuously increased the number of robot installations since 2009 from about 5,800 units to 12,200 units in 2013—still far below the peak of almost 15,000 units in 2006 and 2007. The plastics and rubber industry's share of the total supply in 2013 was about 7%.

Truly striking was the report's conclusion that the Chinese robot market will double in the next three years.


Chinaplas 2015 will feature a new automation zone. (Photo: Adsale Exhibition Services Ltd)

According to the study, by 2017, more industrial robots will be operating in China's production plants than in the European Union or North America. Operating unit numbers there will double from today's 200,000 to more than 400,000. By comparison: In North America, the number of robots is expected to rise to about 300,000, while some 340,000 units are predicted to be operating in Europe's five largest economies.

China is already the world's largest market in the sale of industrial robots. But this merely marks the first step in a fast game of catch-up. Given China's still very low robotic density the future market dimensions are palpably clear:

To date, China only has 30 industrial robots per 10,000 employees in manufacturing industries. To compare: Germany's robotic density is ten times larger—in Japan it is actually eleven times more. In North America, robotic density is five times higher than in China, where the majority of industrial robots are used for handling operations (40%) and for welding (36%). The automotive industry is by far the largest customer (approx. 40%).

"The automation of China's production plants has just started," says Per Vegard Nerseth, managing director of ABB Robotics. "As the first foreign robot manufacturer to arrive here we have observed the market and developments for years now. We have witnessed swift, almost explosive, growth over the last two or three years, surpassing even our expectations."

Kuka and two Japanese robot manufacturers now also have their own locally-based production sites. Four out of five industrial robots in China are made by foreign manufacturers—the majority from Japan, North America and Europe.

Yet more manufacturers are planning to build their own production lines in China.

The Chinese government is simultaneously pushing forward with robotic research. Once again the main partners are leading foreign robotic manufacturers. In contrast, Chinese manufacturers have concentrated on customers satisfied with average quality and unsophisticated technology. But sales in this segment have also more than tripled since 2012. 

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