North American robotics shipments grow in 2013, while new orders contract

Following a strong year in 2012, the North American robotics market recorded its best year ever in 2013 in terms of robot shipments, according to new statistics from Robotic Industries Association (RIA). A total of 22,591 robots valued at $1.39 billion were shipped to companies in North America in 2013, beating the previous record of 20,328 robots valued at $1.29 billion shipped in 2012. These new records for robotic shipments represent growth of 11% in units and 7% in dollars.

While robot shipments set record highs in 2013, new orders fell. A total of 21.562 robots valued at $1.34 billion were orders from North American companies in 2013, representing a decrease of 5% in units and 10% in dollars from 2012. While the 2013 totals for robot orders represent a contraction from 2012, they remain the second highest annual figures ever recorded for North America.

The RIA estimates that there are some 228,000 robots currently in use in U.S. factories, placing the U.S. second only to Japan in robot use. Yet, Jeff Burnstein, president of RIA, commented that "many observers believe that only about 10% of the U.S. companies that could benefit from robots have installed any so far. A very large segment of small and medium sized companies who may have the most to gain are just now beginning to seriously investigate robotics."

Especially in light of today's tight skilled labor pool, automation has become a way to increase productivity. However, robots haven't exactly taken the place of humans in many areas because while they are instrumental at taking on repetitive tasks, jobs that require heavy lifting such as large-part removal from molds, and operations such as trimming large thermoformed parts or deflashing blow molded parts that sometimes present safety issues, humans are needed for automation/robotic integration, programming, set-up and maintenance and repair.

While demand for robots in manufacturing in heavy industries would seem to be the primary environment, according to the RIA, the top industries in terms of units ordered in 2013 were life sciences (+73%) and food and consumer goods (+67%). "While the highly cyclical purchases by automotive companies contracted in 2013 for robots, we saw strong growth in non-automotive industries," said Alex Shikany, director of market analysis for RIA. "The total number of robots ordered for use in non-automotive industries grew 22% over 2012."

In the absence of skilled labor, automation can provide a competitive edge in terms of lead times and quality, and make the workplace safer for employees. Automation can also improve productivity by allowing "lights out" manufacturing 24/7. So it seems the old joke about the manufacturing plant of the future (there will two employees - a man and a dog; the man is there to feed the dog and the dog is there to bite the man if he tries to touch the machines), probably won't happen anytime soon.

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