The robotics market in North America posted its second-highest quarter ever in terms of robots ordered in first quarter 2014, according to new statistics from the Robotic Industries Association (RIA).
A total of 5,938 robots valued at $338 million were ordered by companies in North America in first quarter 2014, coming in just shy of the all-time record of 6,235 robots valued at $385 million in fourth quarter 2012. Units ordered grew 1 percent while order dollars fell 1 percent when compared to first quarter 2013 figures. When sales by North American robot suppliers to companies outside North America are included, the totals are 6,491 robots valued at $372 million.
“RIA is thrilled to see many new companies adopting robotics and realizing the benefits of automation, as evidenced by the strong start in 2014,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of RIA.
The automotive industry is still the largest customer for robotics in North America, representing 58 percent of total orders, but non-automotive industries have continued their rapid growth. The top industries in terms of growth for first quarter 2014 were food and consumer goods (+91 percent), plastics and rubber (+55 percent), and life sciences (+36 percent). “Robotics for use in non-automotive industries is a hot topic right now,” said Alex Shikany, director of market analysis for RIA. “In total, the overall number of robots ordered for use in non-automotive industries grew 18 percent over first quarter 2013,” he added.
In terms of applications for robot orders, sizeable increases were seen in coating and dispensing (+24 percent) and assembly (+18 percent).
RIA estimates that some 228,000 robots are now at use in U.S. factories, placing the nation second only to Japan in robot use. “Many observers believe that only about 10 percent of the U.S. companies that could benefit from robots have installed any so far,” Burnstein said. “A very large segment of small and medium-sized companies [that] may have the most to gain are just now beginning to seriously investigate robotics.”
Chinese Manufacturing Shows Inkling of Improvement
China’s manufacturing sector continued to shrink for a fifth straight month but at a more moderate pace, according to the HSBC Flash China Manufacturing PMI. By posting a 49.7 reading in May, Chinese manufacturers again fell under the 50 rating separating expansion from contraction, though it represented a sizable improvement over April’s 48.1 rating and a five-month high.
Both production and new orders at Chinese manufacturing facilities contracted significantly less this month, according to the flash PMI. Compared to April, both sub-indexes have changed from a negative direction and are increasing. Backlogs of work continued to decrease but at a lower rate. However, employment among Chinese factories continued to drop and at an even quicker pace than the month before.
Hongbin Qu, chief economist for China and co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC, said May’s improvement in China’s manufacturing sector “was broad based with both new orders and new export orders back in expansionary territory.” He continued, “Disinflationary pressures also eased over the month, and output prices increased for the first time since November 2013.”
However, he added that the poor employment performance implies “that this month’s uptick in sentiment has not yet filtered through to the labor market. Some tentative signs of stabilization are emerging, partly as a result of the recent mini-stimulus measures and lower borrowing costs [by the Chinese central government]. But downside risks to growth remain, particularly as the property market continues to cool. We think more policy easing is needed to put a floor under growth in the coming months.”
Jobless Claims Hover at Pre-Recession Level
The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week but stayed close to a seven-year low and pointed to ongoing healing in the labor market. The prior week saw the lowest reading since May 2007 and brought claims back to a level last seen before the deep 2007-09 recession.
After adding 288,000 jobs in April, U.S. employers are not expected to match that robust number in May. However, economists predict that the national labor market will grow by an average 200,000 new jobs per month for the rest of 2014.
The total number of people claiming benefits in all programs for the week ending May 3 was 2,620,476, a decrease of 84,543 from the previous week. There were 4,738,083 persons claiming benefits in all programs in the comparable week in 2013.