In 2015, industrial robot sales broke its own worldwide record, surpassing 240,000 units globally which was an 8% increase on the previous year (according to the International Federation of Robotics). Robot sales are at a consistent high for the third consecutive year, IFR estimates that there will be around 2.3 million robots operating across the globe in the industrial sector by 2018.
The growth trend is directly related to the race against rising labour costs, aging workforces and a much larger demand for sustained quality and productivity. Advances in technology created easier access to lower-cost technologies, creating a boon for capital investment, corporate research spending and funding from governments. For a lot of manufacturers, there is now seemingly a large disadvantage when considering not to automate and implement robotics.
China on the Apex
The International Federation of Robotics have estimated that by 2018 roughly 1.3 million brand new industrial robots will be implemented in manufacturing plants and facilities globally. Asia will dominate, primarily China will be the largest implementor, followed by Europe and North America. Top industry sectors for robotic are still electronics and automotive
China surpassed Japan as the host to the largest supply of industrial robots in 2013 and has remained number one across all global markets. In 2014 China increased by 56% leaving the traditional top markets for robotics – U.S, Japan, Germany and Korea behind.
Joe Gemma, President & CEO of KUKA Robotics Corporation in Shelby Township, Michigan, is IFR’s newly elected President. He says demands for higher productivity, tighter tolerances, mass customization, miniaturization, and shorter product life cycles are driving double-digit growth for robotics worldwide. Particularly in China, where robot sales rose by 16 percent in 2015.
“The automotive industry and the electronics industry by far are the main drivers in China,” says Gemma. “The automotive industry is always a big driver of automation. Installations went from roughly 14,000 to 21,000 units in 2014. But the electronics industry has already started to automate its assembly processes. Robot sales to the electronics industry in China alone rose from roughly 6,500 in 2013 to 16,000 in 2014, so it more than doubled.”
Swiss-based robot manufacturer ABB, Japanese robot makers FANUC, Kawasaki, Nachi, and Yaskawa Motoman, and German-based KUKA still account for the majority of industrial robot sales. But Gemma notes that Chinese robot manufacturers will play an increasingly larger role in automation growth within their country. You can see the significant increase in Chinese robot suppliers from 2013 to 2014 as indicated by the shaded areas in the accompanying bar chart.
“Only a few years ago there was less than a handful of manufacturers,” says Gemma. “The industry is getting a real stronghold in China by equipping itself to be a producer of robots, as well as a consumer of robots.”
Dan Kara is Research Director, Robotics, for ABI Research headquartered in Oyster Bay, New York. He sees the growth in industrial robot installations in Asia, and primarily China, as a major development with long-range implications.
“The large, traditional robot vendors have been in China for a long time. Many of them have offices there,” says Kara. “But now we’re seeing other political and social drivers. The Chinese government is getting involved with issues related to salaries and workforce flexibility. The country as a whole has decided to focus on automation as a way to create an innovation economy as opposed to just a low-cost manufacturing economy. I think this is a massive story.”
He sees the applications in this market expanding as well, from large assemblies in the automotive and white goods industries, to more electronics manufacturing for fine assembly, and even testing.
“One of the areas we see a lot of growth is in the electronics manufacturing services marketplace,” says Kara, referring to large, global contract manufacturers such as Foxconn, Jabil, and Flextronics. “They are trying to automate as much as possible wherever they can.”