Published in Manufacturing
North American robot sales reached unprecedented levels in 2021 as more non-automotive manufacturers embrace automation. North American robot sales reached unprecedented levels in 2021 as more non-automotive manufacturers embrace automation. COURTESY PHOTO

Robot sales surge to unprecedented levels with interest from non-automotive sectors

BY Sunday, February 13, 2022 06:06pm

Manufacturers in West Michigan and across the continent summoned robots to their shop floors at an unprecedented pace last year as non-automotive sectors warmed up in big numbers to automation.

A report this month by Ann Arbor-based Association for Advancing Automation (A3) revealed a record-breaking year of robot sales in North America for 2021 as manufacturers continue to accelerate their adoption of advanced technology and automation to make up for the lack of human workers.

The report measured sales strictly for traditional industrial robots and not cobots or autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), which are programmed to move through an environment independently.

The sales figures show that North America had $2 billion in robot sales in 2021. The 39,708 units sold throughout the continent signified a 14-percent increase compared to 2017, when the industry set the previous watermark. Last year also brought a 28-percent spike in sales from 2020.

While the automotive industry has long been ahead of the curve in adopting robots, a surge in demand from non-automotive sectors buoyed the recent growth, according to the report. In fact, non-automotive orders now represent 58 percent of total North American robot sales.

“For two years in a row … non-automotive markets account for a larger segment of robot sales than automotive markets,” A3 President Jeff Burnstein told MiBiz. “That’s a big change. When we saw that start to happen in 2020, we knew we were reaching a much larger range of companies. … And it’s not like the automotive markets are going away, either.”

Of those non-automotive sectors, the metals industry saw the most explosive rise in orders for robots, jumping 91 percent from 2020 to 2021. Food and consumer goods also saw a 29-percent spike in orders.

“I think a lot of companies have been thinking about automating and have not gotten around to doing it,” Burnstein said. “Then the pandemic hit and they realized, ‘Hey, we can’t bring people into work, it’s tough to keep production up. We ought to really invest in automation.’ I think that’s proven to be one of the main drivers there.”

Universal Robots, a Danish producer of collaborative robots that maintains a facility in Ann Arbor, also experienced a banner year in 2021 with $300 million in annual revenue. Revenue for the company jumped 41 percent from 2020 and was up 23 percent from pre-pandemic results in 2019.

Joe Campbell, senior manager of applications development and strategic marketing for Universal Robots, called it an “exceptional year” for the company, fueled by an existing labor shortage that grew worse during the pandemic.

He said that he noticed interest in robots from all sectors.

“It was interesting to see — welding has been the fastest growing segment,” Campbell said. “These are mostly small shops, contract welding shops. They’re the epitome of high mix, low volume, which historically we haven’t been able to automate.”

User friendly

The rise in robot sales even comes as robot makers are grappling with the same supply chain issues that are plaguing manufacturers. 

Burnstein said some robot manufacturers have run into extended lead times, but the problem has not slowed down the industry significantly.

Mark Ermatinger, CEO of Zeeland-based Industrial Control Service Inc., which provides factory automation solutions, products and training, echoed that sentiment. He said the availability for certains brands might be an issue, but overall stock of robots is sufficient.

And as robots become more user friendly and make more economical sense, small and mid-size manufacturers will dip a toe in the water.

“The other thing contributing (to increased sales) is the ease of use,” Ermatinger said. “The ease of use with robots coming into the market — the collaborative robots — is giving end users more confidence to be able to deploy them and maintain them.”

While A3’s numbers are positive for the robot industry, Ermatinger said growth in this area of automation was even greater when factoring in non-traditional robots, like AMRs.

“I think the price point has gotten down to the point where if you’re a manufacturer of any type of industry, you can probably afford it now where, before, you didn’t feel like you could,” Ermatinger said.

While the subsequent years of sales might not climb at the same rate, Burnstein said the outlook is still very rosy.

“There are a lot of reasons to be long-term optimistic on the trend to automate,” he said. “The demographics aren’t changing. The worker shortages will still be significant. There are a lot of tasks being done by automation that have never been done before — a lot of innovation.”

“Long-term, big growth,” Burnstein added. “Year-to-year or quarter-to-quarter, I can’t say that. But, in the near-term, I expect it to continue growing.” 

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