Auto-Industry Demand Drives Record Year for Robot Sales

Auto-Industry Demand Drives Record Year for Robot Sales

But the industry saw gains in other sectors as well. Sales to non-automotive customers grew 27%, led by metalworking industries (up 56%) and semiconductor/electronics/photonics (up 24%), according to the Robotic Industries Association.

Is the robot revolution in full swing?

The data suggests that it just might be. Sales of industrial robots in North America hit an all-time high in 2011, according to new data from the Robotic Industries Association.

Companies in North America bought 19,337 robots valued at $1.17 billion in 2011, topping the previous record of 18,228 robots sold in 2005, according to the association.

When sales by North American robot suppliers to companies outside North America are included, the totals are 22,126 robots valued at $1.35 billion.

Sales of industrial robots in North America hit an all-time high in 2011, according to the Robotic Industries Association. (Photo courtesy Fanuc Robotics America Corp.)

Orders for robots in North America jumped 47% in units and 38% in dollar value compared with 2010, according to RIA.

The automotive industry helped drive the uptick in demand for industrial robots, noted Paul Kellett, director of market analysis for RIA.

Sales of robots to automotive-component suppliers in North America increased 77% in 2011, while sales to automotive OEMs shot up 59%, according to Kellett.

But the industry saw gains in other sectors as well. Sales to non-automotive customers grew 27%, led by metalworking industries (up 56%) and semiconductor/electronics/photonics (up 24%), according to the association.

Companies increased their use of robots in a number of applications, according to RIA, including spot welding (up 78%), arc welding (66%), assembly (63%), coating and dispensing (42%) and material handling (30%).

Reshoring and Onshoring Played a Role

Companies ordered 5,721 robots valued at $317.5 million in fourth-quarter 2011, marking the strongest quarter ever recorded by RIA since it began reporting data in 1984.

Year-over-year, the fourth quarter was up 61% in units and 40% in dollars, according to the association.

"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.

Burnstein noted that the association sensed that 2011 was going to be a big year from the get-go.

"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 said.

Also contributing to the record year "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 of Pleasanton, Calif.-based Adept Technology and chair of RIA's Statistical Collection Committee.

RIA estimates that some 213,000 robots are now at use in U.S. factories, placing the United States second only to Japan in robot use.

"Many observers believe that only about 10% of the U.S. companies that could benefit from robots have installed any so far," Burnstein said.

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