What Happened to the "Auto" in Automation?

What Happened to the "Auto" in Automation?

Robot sales on the decline to automakers, but on the rise in other sectors.

The headlines blared: "North American Robot Orders Declined 17% in First Quarter." Bad news? Yes, but the good side is that "non-automotive orders jumped 36%, an encouraging sign," says Jeffrey A. Burnstein, executive vice president of trade group Robotic Industries Association (RIA).

The good side may even be better, adds Rohit Khanolkar, engineering manager at Applied Manufacturing Technologies. His speculation hinges on whether the rest of manufacturing has come to realize how much the automotive industry gained from the lean flexibility of robotic automation. "The automotive industry has taken a lead role in selecting robots as their preferred flexible automation solution," Khanolkar says. "Industries other than automotive need to realize the benefits that robots can add to their manufacturing processes. Robots are accurate, flexible, programmable, can work in environments not suited for humans, and more importantly, they are repeatable with a high degree of accuracy. These attributes directly contribute to end product quality, which in turn reduces scrap and rework -- a requirement of lean manufacturing."

Burnstein adds that in the non-automotive sector, the robotic industry saw revenue growth of 116% in food and consumer goods, while in semiconductors/ electronics/ photonics, unit orders were up 58% and revenue was up 96%.

For the metals sector, orders in both units and revenue were up 50%. "This most likely means that the value-add in the orders to the non-automotive sector are increasing," explains Ake Lindqvist, group vice president of ABB Robotics and chairman of RIA's Statistics Committee

A total of 3,828 robots valued at $288.1 million were sold in the opening quarter by North American-based robotics companies, according to the figures released by RIA. When sales to companies outside North America are included, the totals are 4,281 robots valued at $311.3 million, a decline of 15% in units and a gain of 6% in revenue.

RIA says the first-quarter numbers reveal the continuation of a downturn in purchases by the automotive industry, which began in the second half of 2007. Orders to automotive manufacturers and their suppliers fell 34% in units. Traditionally, the automotive industry accounts for some 65% of robot orders in North America, says Burnstein. In the first quarter, sales to automotive customers accounted for just 52% of total orders.

"Welding and coating/dispensing orders reveal big declines because these are heavily tied to automotive," adds Burnstein. "Assembly and material handling applications show gains because many of these applications are also extensively used in non-automotive industries."

RIA hopes to continue fostering increased growth in non-automotive sectors such as retail, pharmaceutical, biotech, rehabilitation and lab automation, says Burnstein. Adds Lindqvist, "We have had a more or less flat market development in the non-automotive sector for quite some time. Let's hope that this trend is finally broken."

RIA estimates that some 180,000 robots are now used in the United States, placing the U.S. second only to Japan in overall robot use. It's estimated that more than one million robots are in operation worldwide.

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