If 2022 was the record year to beat, Automate 2023 has given robotics event organizers an even greater run for their money!
This year’s event was the biggest yet, featuring 300,000 square feet of exhibit space, 750 exhibitors and 25,000 attendees, according to Jeff Burnstein, president of event organizer A3 (Association for Advancing Automation). The largest robotics and automation trade group in the world, A3 boasts 1,200 member companies.
“[Automate] has been growing by 45% to 50%, to the point where we’re screening for exhibit space this year, and Automate is now going to be an annual show,” Burnstein announced at the event held at Huntington Place in Detroit.
Enthusiasm for market growth was similarly reflected in an industry trends presentation. Alex Shikany, VP, Membership & Business Intelligence, A3, reported that 2022 was a record year in robotics orders, jumping more than 44,000 units for the first time since collecting statistics in the early 1980s.
A3 research, he reminded the audience, is segmented between automotive, which includes OEM and components orders, and non-automotive, which includes life sciences, electronics, metals, plastics and everything that is not bundled under the automotive segment.
“The industry came back from a more historic norm in terms of automotive orders,” he said. “The automotive segment really took an upswing [in 2022], and you’re going to walk around [the show] and see a lot of automotive applications. One of the things driving this is the route to electrify the supply chain…The move has driven the need for robotics.”
Compared to 2022, the start of 2023 revealed a more tempered outlook. North American companies ordered fewer robots in the first quarter of 2023 than for the same period last year. According to A3, companies ordered 9,168 units valued at $597 million in Q1 2023, a 21% drop in total units and a 10% drop in value over the same quarter in 2022.
A3 also stated that automotive customers accounted for 68% of all robot orders in Q1 of 2023, with 5,659 robots purchased. During Q1, non-automotive orders in consumer goods, semiconductor & electronics, plastics & rubber, life sciences/pharmaceutical/biomedical, metals and others purchased 3,519 robots, were down 42% over Q1 2022.
Burnstein stated in a press release that inflation and a slowing U.S. economy may have taken a slight toll on robot orders overall, but that the automotive sector continues to fast-track purchase orders as they make the transition to manufacturing electric vehicles.
“Non-automotive companies are typically newer to automation and may be waiting to invest more until they’ve tested recent deployments or see the economy begin to recover,” he said.
Add to this the fact that labor shortages continue to be a key risk in the growth of automation. That’s all the more reason manufacturers look for ways to handle the “dull, dirty and dangerous” tasks that can be handled by robots, Shikany said.
“I don’t think automation is about taking away jobs anymore,” said ABB’s U.S. Robotics Division president, John Bubnikovish. “What we saw recently, is the Congressional Budget Office had released that 0.2% annual increase in labor from 2024 to 2031. And, when you look at that, there’s essentially 2.1 million jobs left unfilled. So, it’s not about taking jobs anymore. It’s about how can you have some continuity in your business to continue to operate at the production levels that you have.
“[Moreover], how do you expand? And that’s where I think the real value from automation comes from nowadays; it’s not going to replace workers necessarily. It is that we can’t find workers to do these jobs anymore, so we’re going to have to automate.”
That demand was evident in investments made in AI, motion and vision control, as well as communications and networking solutions that bring together hardware and connected devices into a software environment.
For her part, Barbara Humpton, CEO and president, Siemens Corporation, made the case for using augmented intelligence, or the use of qualitative data sets, to enable the programming of PLCs. “This makes every one of us capable of programming the automation,” she said during her keynote. This is no longer out of reach to the people we are going to need to bring it into the workforce. This is the power of the platform.”
Siemens is developing a software-enabled controller that is designed to be hardware agnostic. “We know that manufacturing environments everywhere are heterogeneous,” Humpton said. “Over the decades we’ve brought technology from all kinds of suppliers into this working world and we had these solutions working side by side.
“And now the virtual PLC enables us to access that hardware through a software interface. Why would we want to do this? Well, for a couple of reasons. One, we do want to start thinking about hardware as a service.”
She explained further that the Siemens Xcelerator open digital transformation platform can enable service technicians to get alerts on their iPhones if equipment needs attention. Technicians would be able to see the diagnostics as they stream through the application interface and then be able to take corrective action. “Think about what this might do for our workforce management,” she said.
Humpton’s keynote presentation offered an overarching upbeat philosophical message about optimizing for change. “What we’ve been talking about here is the introduction of technologies. But if you listen closely, what we’re really talking about is who we are as people, and how we operate in this world of incredible opportunity.
"And the question I’ve been asking myself, and I hope you’ll join me in this quest, is to answer this question: Instead of trying to find an optimal state of being, what would it look like if we got our teams to focus on optimizing for being in a state of constant change?”
Attendees to Humpton’s keynote would have found plenty to mull over on the trade show floor. “There’s so much demand for automation, and Automate, we believe, is the leading event for people to learn how to successfully apply these technologies,” Burnstein said.
The next Automate will be held from May 6-9, 2024 at McCormick Place, Chicago.