Industry Market Trends

Robots Assume More Roles and Relevance

Jul 06, 2005

Once relegated to performing the most menial of tasks, industrial robots now factor into a manufacturer's global competitiveness:

Robots are getting more impressive and not just in terms of their functionality. IndustryWeek reports that "today's smarter, more capable robots have also become significant tools affecting global competition." An estimated 147,000 robots are now employed in U.S. factories.

Gone are the days when they simply provided a means to cut labor costs. Now, they can bolster a company's competitiveness. "Think of industrial robots as a business strategy tool, one that helps build manufacturing competitiveness in a global economy," Rick Schneider, president and CEO of Fanuc Robotics America Inc. in Rochester Hills, Michigan, tells IndustryWeek. "Robotic technology impacts and delivers more than just departmental benefits."

Schneider, points out that for some companies, using robots could be a cost-effective alternative to moving production overseas. Take Cleveland-based Lincoln Electric, for example, which manufactures and supplies arc welding equipment, robot welding systems and plasma and oxyfuel cutting equipment.

One of Lincoln's customers pushed for the manufacturing operation to be transplanted to China, citing this move as the only way to reduce arc welding costs. But when Lincoln compared U.S. cost performance to what would be achieved in China, it found that with robots, the customer's per-part cost in the U.S. could go down to 30 cents (it was 84 cents with manual methods)--same as the figures projected for China.

Furthermore, through more detailed analysis it discovered that robots could also reduce weld time from one minute and 23 seconds to a blazing 61 seconds--and with much higher quality and better process control, to boot. The decision then became obvious: invest in robotics automation to reap the cost, quality and lead-time advantages as well as preserve domestic production.

"This example demonstrates how robotic welding can reduce manufacturing costs and improve efficiency, [even] exceeding cost standards set by low-cost labor countries such as China," says Schneider, who encourages North American manufacturers to turn their strategic attention to quality, cost effectiveness, productivity and profitability instead of offshoring in a "Save Your Factory" campaign.

Not coincidentally, robots are becoming more important in business strategy as they gain more capabilities, including vision and improved mobility. And the Automated Image Association expects the global market for vision-guided robots in material handling and assembly to top $2 billion a year. Beyond the industrial arena, robots are also expected to be huge players in the service industry and in military applications.

"Though robots have been used in the U.S. for over 40 years, we have still only scraped the surface of potential applications," Donald A. Vincent, executive vice president, Robot Industry Association (RIA) in Detroit, tells IndustryWeek. "Each day, as an awareness of robotic benefits spreads, new companies are taking a close look at robots to see if they make sense in their company."


New Roles For Robots

John Teresko

IndustryWeek, July 1, 2005