Who’s Winning the Robot Race?

Aug. 15, 2019
More than 2.5 million robots will be put to work this year. Which country is employing the most?

Until a few years ago, the phrase “Industrial Revolution” was largely associated with radical engineering changes that transformed industry. Two centuries later, we’re experiencing another shift in the manufacturing landscape, the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Here’s a snapshot of who is leading in the race for automated production.

Statistics from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) indicate that the number of industrial robots used in production is rapidly increasing. However, three-quarters of those robot sales are attributed to just five countries —China, the Republic of Korea, Japan, the United States, and Germany.

Asia has long remained the strongest market for robotics. Of the record breaking 380,550 robots sold globally in 2017, a significant percentage of them are in Asian factories. In fact, Asia reported record-breaking robot sales for the past four years in a row, rising by 19% in 2017.

 has pulled out all the stops to remain at the forefront in this area. Back in 2015, the Chinese government announced Made in China 2025 (MiC2015). It is a national initiative aimed at rebooting the country’s manufacturing sector, with an objective of China becoming the world’s largest user of robots.

Similarly, Japan launched its own transformation project in 2017, named Society 5.0. The scheme aims to go beyond Germany’s 2011 Industry 4.0 initiative by considering the challenges new technologies will bring to society rather than solely focusing on their use in manufacturing. Regardless of the phrase or buzzword used to describe these manufacturing changes, almost every nation is upping their game.

According to the World Robot Statistics, 74 robots per 10,000 employees is the world’s average robot density. The U.S. sits comfortably above this, at 189 robots per 10,000 employees. In 2016, the country began to climb the robot density ranks and today, the U.S. ranks seventh in the world behind South Korea, Singapore, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Denmark.

This figure has been significantly boosted by the necessary modernization of U.S. production facilities, as well as a growing demand for products made in the U.S. What’s more, robot sales in the country are expected to increase by at least 15% per year between now and 2020.

Europe, the world’s second largest market for industrial robot sales, has also increased its volume of robot deployment. Purchasing 56,000 units last year, the continent reached a new peak for robot sales for the third year in a row. That said, much of this deployment is attributed to Germany, currently the fifth largest robot market in the world.

Much of Europe’s deployment of robots relates to its automotive industry. It’s therefore no surprise that the champions for robotics in Europe are those with a strong automotive presence—Germany, Italy and Sweden.

Automotive manufacturers have long used six-axis robots in production. Looking to the future, increasing the volume of robot deployment will rely on the small- to medium-sized companies also investing in automation.

To reach this market, industrial robots must become more accessible, in relation to both cost and user experience. The 2018 TM Robotics’ Global Robotics Report stated that simple programming was one of the most important features when choosing a SCARA, Cartesian. or six-axis model. 79% of respondents named it as a top five consideration.

Easy robot programming is not only an attractive feature for new users but reduces programming time for established ones, as well. Growing demand for easily programmed robots is also evident in the rapid increase in sales of collaborative models—robots that can work without protective barriers between machine and employees.

Collaborative robots, or cobots, account for 3% of the total robotics market, but this figure is expected to reach 34% by 2025. These machines have been marketed as easy to program, but despite this, they should not be considered as a total alternative to traditional industrial robots.

While cobots do boast some responsive features, they generally cannot tackle dangerous, repetitive, and heavy-duty tasks usually associated with industrial robots. And respondents to the Global Robotics Report agree. 55% do not believe cobots are advanced enough to deliver the performance require for manufacturing, and a further 25% are unsure of their capabilities.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for automating a facility. Although the growing market for cobots is an ideal first step towards automation, there’s more than one route to deploying robots in a facility.

Unlike the first Industrial Revolution, today’s manufacturing industry is fiercely competitive. Not only are nations contending to increase the volume of robots they deploy in their facilities, but new types of robots are emerging to take on new tasks and operations.

The IFR predicts that the industry will experience a further boom in 2019, with an estimated 2.6 million robot units set to be deployed. There’s no denying that Asia is currently dominating the robotics market, but with such rapid changes happening in a relatively short period of time, there’s time and room for other nations to catch up.

Nigel Smith is president and CEO of TM Robotics, an industrial robot distributor. For more information call (847) 709-7308 or click here.

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