Winning the Robot Race

Worker using tablet to check on robotics activity in an industrial facility

TM Robotics recently authored a report investigating which nations are leading the way in the race for automated production. Statistics from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) show that the number of industrial robots used in production activities is increasing rapidly. However, three-quarters of total robot sales are currently attributed to just five countries — China, the Republic of Korea, Japan, the United States, and Germany.

Asia has long remained the strongest market for robotics. Of the record-breaking 380,550 robot units sold globally in 2017, a significant percentage of these are deployed to Asian factories. In fact, the region has reported record-breaking robot sales for the past four years in a row, rising by 19% in 2017. Asia has pulled out all the stops to remain at the forefront in this area. In 2015, for instance, the Chinese government announced Made in China 2025 (MiC2015), a national initiative that aims to reboot the country’s manufacturing sector, with the objective of China becoming the world’s largest user of robots.

Similarly, Japan launched its own transformation project in 2017, called Society 5.0. This initiative aims to go beyond Germany’s 2011 Industry 4.0 initiative by considering the challenges that these new technologies will bring to society, rather than focusing solely on their use in manufacturing. 

According to the World Robot Statistics, the world’s average robot density is 74 robots per 10,000 employees. The United States sits comfortably above this, at 189 robots per 10,000 employees. In 2016, the country began to climb the robot-density ranks, and today comes in at seventh in the world, behind South Korea, Singapore, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Denmark.

This figure has been significantly boosted by the modernization of U.S. production facilities, as well as the growing demand for products made in the United States. What’s more, robot sales in the U.S. are expected to increase by at least 15% per year between now and 2020.

Europe, the world’s second-largest market for industrial robot sales, has also increased its volume of robot deployment. Purchasing 56,000 units in total, the continent reached a new peak for robot sales for the third year in a row. That said, much of this deployment was attributed to Germany, currently the fifth-largest robot market in the world. Much of Europe’s deployment of robotic technology is related to the automotive industry. It’s therefore no surprise that the greatest champions for robotics in Europe are those with a strong automotive presence — Germany, Italy, and Sweden.

Automotive manufacturers have long used six-axis robots throughout production. Looking to the future, increasing the volume of robot deployment will rely on the small- to medium-sized companies also investing in automation.

To reach this market, industrial robots must become more accessible, in relation to both cost and user experience. The results of TM Robotics’ "Global Robotics Report," which will be released in 2019, stated that simple programming was one of the most important features when choosing a SCARA, Cartesian, or six-axis model, with 79% of respondents naming this as a top-five consideration.

Easy robot programming is not only an attractive feature for new users, but also provides established users with reduced programming time. Growing demand for easily programmable robots is also evident in the rapid increase in sales of collaborative models — robots that can work without protective barriers between machine and employee.

Collaborative robots, or co-bots, currently account for 3% of the total robotics market, but this figure is expected to reach 34% by 2025. Although these machines have been marketed as easy to program, they should not be considered a complete alternative to traditional industrial robots.

While co-bots do boast some impressive responsive features, these machines generally cannot tackle the dangerous, repetitive, and heavy-duty tasks usually associated with industrial robots — and respondents to the "Global Robotics Report" agree, with 55% saying that they do not believe co-bot technology is advanced enough to deliver the performance required for manufacturing, and a further 25% saying that they are unsure of these co-bots' capabilities.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for automating a facility. While growth in the co-bot market shows that co-bots may indeed be an ideal first step toward automation, there’s more than one route to deploying robotics in an industrial facility.

Unlike the first industrial revolution, today’s manufacturing industry is fiercely competitive. Not only are nations aiming to increase the volume of robots they deploy in their facilities, but new types of robotic technologies are emerging every day to take on new tasks and operations. The IFR predicts that the industry will experience another boom in 2019, with an estimated 2.6 million robot units set to be deployed. There’s no denying that Asia is currently dominating the robotics market, but with such rapid changes happening in a relatively short period of time, there’s good opportunity for other nations to catch up.

 

Image credit: PopTika / Shutterstock.com

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