Robotics and additive manufacturing markets have entered into a new phase of growth, ripened by an era in which maintaining the status quo is no longer viable for manufacturers who struggle to secure quality labor.
That’s because robotic systems are enabling manufacturers to deliver higher quality parts and maximize throughput, said Mark Ermatinger, vice president of sales at Zeeland-based Industrial Control Service Inc., who does not see the “rise” of robots stopping anytime soon.
“If a manufacturer has not implemented robot technology, they’re probably behind,” he said. “If they don’t have any automation to speak of, if they’re brand new, then they’re definitely behind.”
A record number of robots were shipped in North America last year, with more installed at non-automotive companies than ever before, according to a report from the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), part of the Ann Arbor-based Association for Advancing Automation.
Although the automotive industry has been a leading indicator of the success of automation since the now decades-old introduction of standard industrial arms, that’s changing, according to Joe Dyer, team lead for manufacturing technical service at Disher Corp. The Zeeland-based product and development firm has seen a swell of non-automotive customers installing robots, Dyer said.
“It’s just becoming cheaper and people are becoming more familiar with robotics and starting to see their uses,” he said.
According to Dyer, robots are becoming more easily integrated into factories and workplaces as the automation industry grows and universities become more familiar with teaching robotic technology.
“It’s becoming easier and easier for younger engineers to really hop in and figure things out,” he said. “The end goal is not automation for automation’s sake. It’s to increase productivity and increase the effectiveness of people. The human condition really is one of creativity in creating, and I love being involved in an industry where the sky’s the limit in terms of creativity and combining systems and integrating systems together that bring value in a creative way.”
Significant year-over-year robotics growth has occurred in areas like food and consumer goods (up 48 percent), plastics and rubber (up 37 percent), life sciences (up 31 percent), and electronics (up 22 percent), according to the RIA report.
At least a few of these non-automotive industries are being “forced” to implement automation because of historically low unemployment and a continuous labor shortage, Dyer said.
“I’ve personally seen some customers and clients who you wouldn’t normally think are diving in, which is great,” he said. “It’s great because that doesn’t mean that they’re taking away jobs. That’s actually completely false. They’re adding jobs because it’s adding and growing the businesses.”
Cobots gain acceptance
Companies have adopted collaborative robots, also known as cobots, which share a workspace and direct physical interaction with a human operator, at an increasingly rapid rate.
Since Danish manufacturer Universal Robots (UR) sold its first commercial cobot in 2008, the company has grown exponentially, exceeding 22,000 units sold last year. The company claims collaboration between a human operator and a robot is 85 percent more productive than if either were working independently from one another.
Cobot volume is forecasted to grow at 60 percent annually and reach 30 percent of all robot sales and $7 billion by 2017, according to a report from the market research firm Interact Analysis.
“In the last two years, it’s really been on fire,” Industrial Control’s Ermatinger said. “It’s crazy how many people are releasing (collaborative) robots, not just in the U.S., but companies from China and a lot of players from South Korea, Europe. It’s a market that’s going to be flooded here pretty quick.”
The rapid growth rate of the cobot has produced a “highly fragmented” market, according to Dyer.
“Even within three or four years, there are manufacturers all over that are actively comparing and contrasting these technologies,” he said. “You’ll see that market fragmentation because collaboratives are a new technology that everyone is still trying to figure out the right application and the most value.”
Each company is developing its own strengths, weaknesses and priorities, he said, but not many offer a total package for customers — at least yet.
For example, he said some companies have developed “rock solid, bulletproof hardware” that is designed to work consistently but leaves little flexibility for innovation, whereas other companies are developing the opposite. As the industry matures, Dyer thinks the market will see more consolidation of companies, which will decrease fragmentation.
“We are definitely getting to the place where there are some really, really large automation businesses now that get across disciplines,” he said. “A lot of them have done that through acquisitions.”
A frenzy of recent consolidation activity has blanketed the automation industry. Companies of all sizes, including Holland-based JR Automation Technologies LLC, are increasing their automation footprints.
NuVescor Group LLC, a Hudsonville-based mergers and acquisitions firm, recently supported the sales of four automation companies, according to Managing Partner Randy Rua.
“There are some specific core capabilities and machines that some of these companies have grown around,” Nick Good, managing director at NuVescor, told MiBiz.
“The attraction is for a larger, more diverse automation business to look at those companies and instead of spending all this time trying to learn, buy a business that already is really good at building these types of machines and step into people who know the designs, who know how to build those machines as optimally as possible and also have all the relationships already with the customers,” Good said.
In addition, there is a “trickle down” demand to hire more machine builders, controls engineers and mechanical design engineers, according to Good. One way to acquire them is to purchase the place where they already work.
“A lot of these automation businesses that we speak with on the buy-and-sell side are following and trying to lead out into the changes upstream from them,” he said.
As automation grows, some observers may note the irony that companies consider people their greatest resource, but Dyer isn’t surprised.
“Robots are becoming smarter and smarter every day, but the thing is that robots are really, really good at putting a bolt in the same spot every single time,” Dyer said. “It’s the people who are really, really good at solving those problems of programming and implementing it in an efficient way.”