Elizabeth Engler Modic Editor, emodic@gie.net

Last year was a rollercoaster for many industries, but 2020 proved welcoming to robots and automation. Yearly robot orders placed by the non-automotive sector surpassed automotive robot orders for the first time, as North American robotic unit sales increased 3.5% from 2019. Q4 2020 had the second-best quarter for robot sales – a 63.6% increase from Q4 2019 – according to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA).

North American companies ordered 31,044 robots valued at $1.572 billion, while Q4 accounted for 32% of those units and 30% of the dollar value: 9,972 units, $479 million. The industry leading the increase, life sciences, more than doubled the orders of automotive components makers.

Annual 2020 order growth in units, year-over-year, stood at:

  • Life Sciences/Pharma/Biomed: 69%
  • Food & Consumer Goods: 56%
  • Plastics & Rubber: 51%
  • Automotive: 39%
  • Semiconductor/Electronics/Photonics: 11%
  • Metals: 7%
  • All other industries: -11%
  • Automotive Components: -33%

The pandemic drove much of the increase, but for varying reasons. Essential businesses remained open while complying with social distancing guidelines, and in many cases increased production demand ranging from PPE, medical equipment, and COVID-19 testing kits to toilet paper, cleaning products, and frozen pizzas (growing 3.3% in 2020), with most demand coming via e-commerce.

“The pandemic has created a sense of urgency for manufacturing companies to invest in automation like never before,” comments Mike Cicco, president/CEO of Fanuc America. And, while traditional reasons for implementing automation range from reducing cost to upping quality and output, SARS-CoV-2’s impact on the supply chain becomes a new driver pushing more to look to “increase flexibility, minimize disruptions, and move it closer to their customers.”

The large increase in non-automotive sectors comes as “customers focus on making their production lines more flexible and better able to efficiently achieve high-mix, lower volume production in response to constantly evolving customer demands,” comments Mark Joppru, vice president – Consumer Segment & Service Robotics, U.S. ABB Robotics and Machine Automation.

For 2019, the latest numbers from the International Federation of Robots (IFR) show North America’s robot density in the manufacturing industry ranks #9 in the world’s top 10 automated countries, dwarfed by Singapore (918) and the Rep. of Korea (868). But with worldwide growth expected, Milton Guerry, president of IFR and Schunk USA’s president, in a letter to IFR member regarding the role robots will play in the post-pandemic economy says it’s also “driving demand for skilled workers,” noting governments and companies must “focus on providing the right skill necessary to work with robots and intelligent automation systems.”

With last year’s increase in automation and the outlook holding strong for 2021 and beyond, how are you approaching automation? Drop me an email to let me know.