Robots rise to the challenge of ‘bringing manufacturing back’

The on-going impact of the global economic downturn has seen many companies reversing their decisions to outsource manufacturing activities to lower cost countries.

The most recent set of statistics from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) seems to indicate a continued glowing future for industrial robots. The statistics show that 165,000 robots were sold in 2011, a 37 percent increase from the previous year and the highest level recorded since the modern industrial robot was invented. This increase comes in spite of the world economic crisis, which has seen many of the world’s leading industrial nations hit by varying degrees of financial turmoil.

The fact that robot sales underwent a dramatic increase despite these problems highlights a growing realization of the overall benefits of robotic automation in industrial applications. Although much of the growth took place in the automotive, metals and machinery industries, there has also been an increase in the rate of adoption in other markets as well. Developments in robotic technology in recent years have seen dramatic reductions in both complexity and price, making them increasingly suitable for an expanding variety of tasks such as those required in the electronics, food, pharmaceutical and packaging industries.

A major benefit of robotic technology is its ability to reduce waste and improve product consistency; by enabling companies to get their products “right the first time,” robots can help users achieve savings in time, cost and materials that can quickly recoup their original cost of installing the technology. Proof of this can be seen from an installation at a leading UK producer of baked products, which installed a robotic picking and placing system from ABB (see movie below). Handling up to 110 product picks per minute, the performance achieved by the robots, including faster turnaround, improved productivity and reduced overheads, enabled the company to achieve payback on its investment in the automated system in under one year.

Levelling the international playing field

The ability to reduce the cost of production in particular has been a major factor in helping to create a progressively level playing field for companies attempting to compete with producers in low cost countries. General Electric’s Jack Welch famously said in the 1980s that the continued competitiveness of American industry hinged around manufacturers having to decide whether to “automate, emigrate or evaporate.”

In the US in particular, it would seem that this prophecy is now quite literally coming home to roost. Like many of their counterparts in other higher cost economies, American companies transferred much of their production overseas to lower cost countries (LCCs) in search of higher profits. However, a variety of factors including rising costs in LCCs, concerns over the protection of intellectual property (IP) and political pressure to restore the country’s manufacturing base, have seen an increasing number of these same companies now bringing their production back home.

The decision to “reshore” operations—as it is now called—has provided a valuable shot in the arm for automation. Where robots are concerned, the realization of their ability to reduce overheads while boosting competitiveness has seen double-digit growth in the number being installed in the US alone in the past two years. Frequently hailed as the model example of an industrialised Western manufacturing nation, Germany is a good example of what can be achieved by a positive commitment to automated technology. The world’s third largest exporter of finished products, Germany has a strong engineering sector comprised of automotive, machinery and metals manufacturing, as well as wind turbines and solar panels. Robots are extensively used in the production of each of these products and are a key ingredient in the country’s international competitiveness.


Even despite the extensive financial difficulties facing countries worldwide, there is still an insatiable appetite for manufactured goods. For those companies that produce these goods, not least that have reshored their operations, the race is on to find new ways not only to survive, but also to thrive. As a means of producing goods economically and at the quantity and quality that consumers demand, automation, and robots in particular, will find their way into an increasing number of factories worldwide in the very near future.

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About the author

Nigel Platt

I am the Global Application Manager – Welding and Cutting, and also Sales and Marketing Manager - UK and Ireland. I Joined ABB robotics in 1990 and have held various sales and management positions within ABB Robotics UK over the past 22 years. I am as passionate about manufacturing efficiency and competitiveness today as when I started with ABB.
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