On the verge of a robotics explosion – or maybe we’re already there

Growth in industrial robotics sales around the globe seems to have reached a new plateau that belies an even larger change to the world economy.

Since the middle of the last century industrial robots have become increasingly more affordable and useful. For most of that time, sales of industrial robots have grown on a steady but relatively modest trajectory. More recently we have seen the addition of robots that do things like vacuum, cut the lawn, conduct surgery, and entertain at concerts, which has increased the penetration of robotics sales into areas of the economy we couldn’t have imagined when ABB introduced the first electrically driven and commercially available industrial robot in 1973.

But the incredible growth that industrial robotics sales have experienced over the last two years as we exited the economic slump belies what seems to be the beginning stages of a robotics renaissance. Some have even gone so far as to call it the next great economic transition–on par with a period of time like the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age.

Indeed, looking over the just-released “World Robotics 2013” report published by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), 2011 and 2012 were the two best years ever for sales of industrial robots globally, averaging about 162,000 robots sold each year. What’s most striking is that from 2004-2010 (not including 2009, when the rails came off the economy), the average number of robots sold each year came in around 116,000. Think about that just for a moment: Over the course of one year robot sales increased from a relatively steady average of 116,000 to an astounding 162,000–a jump of just about 40%. In the business world you see people regularly celebrate like madmen if they see growth of  10%. At a growth of 40% you’ve surpassed anything that can rationally be called exuberant and can only come to the realization that things are changing faster than the world can even comprehend.

Hot spots for sales include Japan, China, the US, Korea and Germany, which account for about 70% of all robot sales. Yet this doesn’t really tell the full picture, with burgeoning robotics economies such as Thailand, Mexico, and Brazil also starting to show significant adoption rates. With consumer demand for quality products increasing in every part of the world, companies are finding that the only way to achieve that kind of quality cost effectively is with robots. The automotive industry continues to be the biggest purchaser of robots, mostly for welding and cutting, but the chemical, food and beverage, plastics and electronics industries are also accounting for significant amounts of growth. In addition, several embryonic markets are starting to show huge potential for robotics growth, including the entertainment industry–take a look at this Royal Caribbean cruise ship installation for a prime example of this.

Within ABB Robotics we are responding to this change with an increased focus on innovative new technologies that will make the adoption of robots easier and more cost-effective than ever. In fact, the IFR honored ABB achievements in this regard with a top-placed editorial at the opening to the “World Robotics 2013” report from the global Head of ABB Robotics Business Unit, Per Vegard Nerseth–who also happens to be a regular blogger here on ABB Conversations. In that editorial, Nerseth lays out a series of technical challenges that we are striving to overcome, both as a company and an industry, in order to bring robotics to every industry and company that can benefit from them.

“Through movies, marketing and everyday experience, robots have become a normal part of real life,” says Nerseth in that editorial. “Not only have these robots started working their way into every aspect of our daily routines, they have also reduced injuries in the workplace, increased the competitiveness of companies in a fierce global market, elevated the quality of affordable products, increased profits for countless businesses, and created a whole new ecosystem of high-paying and rewarding jobs.”

Nerseth also highlights collaboration of humans and robots on production lines as a key technological hurdle to overcome, something IFR president Dr. Shinsuke Sakakibara echoes. “Challenges facing our industry are not easy but they are feasible,” says Sakakibara in a post introducing the IFR report. “One of the most important challenges I think is human-robot cooperation, i.e. robot assistants.  The implementation of this technique including advanced safety measures, easier, flexible and even more interactive programming and integration will open up plenty of new application fields.”

Sakakibara also has a prediction for the future, saying that in 2013 robotics sales will maintain their 162,000 per year average and that between 2014 and 2016 the IFR Statistical Department expects that worldwide robot sales will increase by about 6% on average per year so that by 2016, the annual supply of industrial robots will reach more than 190,000 units.

For more insight into the exciting future of the robotics industry read Nerseth’s full editorial.

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About the author

Nicole Salas

I'm the Events Manager for ABB Robotics globally. I joined ABB in 2007, working for corporate communications in the United States before joining Robotics in 2013. I began my career as a journalist in Caracas, Venezuela and have worked for United Rentals Inc. as well as several international public and investor relations agencies. Outside of the office, you will find me racing sailboats.
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