US companies deployed more robots last year than ever before - as advanced machines capable of specialized tasks have come down in price and availability, reports Reuters.
Shipments of robots hit 35,880 in 2018 - up 7% over 2017, according to the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) - an industry group based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. What's interesting is that while most robots have historically been bought by the automotive industry, 16,702 shipments went to non-automotive companies, an increase of 41%, while automotive industry orders dipped by 12%.
Notable growth came in areas like food and consumer goods (48 percent), plastics and rubber (37 percent), life sciences (31 percent), and electronics (22 percent).
Meanwhile, shipments to the automotive industry slowed, with only 19,178 units shipped to North American automotive OEM and tier supplier customers in 2018. This was 12 percent lower than the 21,732 units shipped in 2017. Overall, the automotive industry accounted for only 53 percent of total robot shipments in North America in 2018, its lowest percentage share since 2010. -A3
"The food industry is really starting to take off," said Kawasaki Robotics (USA) director of sales and marketing Dan Hasley, adding "food and beverage is one of the segments that really responds to tight labor markets."
"While the automotive industry has always led the way in implementing robotics here in North America, we are quite pleased to see other industries continuing to realize the benefits of automation," said A3 President Jeff Burnstein. "And as we’ve heard from our members and at shows such as Automate, these sales and shipments aren’t just to large, multinational companies anymore. Small and medium-sized companies are using robots to solve real-world challenges, which is helping them be more competitive on a global scale."
Vice President of A3, Bob Doyle, notes that automation is moving beyond automotive manufacturing and other large manufacturers and into warehouses and smaller factories.
One of those is Metro Plastics Technologies Inc, a family-owned business in Noblesville, Indiana, which has only 125 employees and got its start in the 1970s making, among other things, mood rings. Last March, the company bought its first robot, an autonomous machine that carries finished parts from the production area to quality inspectors. In the past, that work was done by workers driving forklifts. -Reuters
"We had three propane, 5,000-pound forklifts," said Metro Plastics CEO Ken Hahn, adding "We've eliminated those."
Instead, Hahn bought a $40,000 robot which costs about twice as much as the cheapest option he considered - but well below the $125,000 the machines can run.
Companies seeking to cut labor costs amid a tight job market are increasingly turning to automation - while those who want to bring work back from overseas in response to the Trump administration's trade policies may find cheaper - pensionless robots that don't require workman's comp or employment taxes, a better alternative to human beings.