Industrial Automation: Where the Growth Is
Read time: 4 minutes
If it seems that robots are taking over industrial production, it’s because they are. Annual installations of industrial robots more than tripled from 2010 through 2019, with more than 380,000 robots now in use in factories around the world. Leading in the implementation of robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers are Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, followed by Sweden and Denmark. Europe and the U.S. are lagging, but they are rapidly increasing automation implementation.
Identifying the industries that are leaders in robot usage and the ways in which they are using the new tools — as well as the changes taking place in adoption and usage — can be helpful in plotting the future course of industrial automation.
What’s Growing and Why
The automotive industry traditionally has been the biggest user of robotic equipment, recently accounting for 70% of the market. Today, the sector is highly automated and remains important, although its share of the total has slipped to about 40%, largely due to growth in other areas.
Regarding nonarticulated arm robots, the market for autonomous mobile robots (AMR) is expected to grow very rapidly and quickly achieve $4 billion. This area began with automated guided vehicles (AGV), which followed a fixed wire buried in the floor. Now, AMRs are equipped with technologies including GPS and vision systems, as well as iterative systems, so they can learn their environment and adjust their programs automatically. If an AMR encounters a pallet sitting in an aisle, for example, it can adjust and improve its route around a factory.
Automation in the Warehousing Industry
AMRs are a natural for warehousing, logistics, and e-commerce. Companies in these areas have been leaders in nonrobotic automation and in using traditional robots for applications such as case packing, palletizing, and sorting. Now they’re using AMRs extensively in warehouses, and even putting articulated-arm robots on top of AMRs, which can travel to a location in the warehouse, pick individual parts off a shelf, and place them on a conveyor or take them to a different part of the building.
Automation in the Electronics Industry
The use of robotics in electronics is also growing, due in part to decreasing costs. A robot in this market segment, which might have cost $15,000 five years ago, now costs less than $6,000. In electronics, flexible robotic systems that can be reprogrammed and retooled are important, as the product life cycles in the segment are relatively short. The flexibility permits the same manufacturing line to remain in place even if the product changes dramatically, which is often the case in the fast-moving electronics industry. This area will continue to grow as many U.S. and European companies try to reduce labor costs and relocate production facilities back home from Asia to better control their supply chain.
Automation in the Aviation Industry
Aerospace and aviation are other growth markets. Drilling holes in airplane wings and fuselages and riveting the thousands of rivets in a typical airplane are labor intensive and ergonomically undesirable jobs for humans that robots can do better. They also are better at inspection and testing. A robot with a nondestructive testing ultrasonic device can travel along an airplane wing and detect cracks or weaknesses. Traditionally, a wing would have to be built and broken to see how much stress it could take, or x-rayed after production. Robots also can be used to transport entire sections of a fuselage across a factory, which in the past was done by much less flexible manual conveyor or crane systems.
Some small but fast-growing sectors:
- Medicine and healthcare. Since COVID, we’ve seen how robots can disinfect hospital rooms and interact directly with the patient through various procedures. Robots are for manufacturing and testing artificial joints, and for orthopedic therapy.
- Farming. Robots are starting to be used in planting, fertilizing, applying pesticides, inspections, and harvesting. Robots can detect defects in apples and cracks in eggs or blood in the yolk, for example, before they go to the consumer.
- Construction and building. There are robot systems that can build cobblestone streets, which is a skill few people now have. 3D printing of buildings and bridges is also now possible.
- Hospitality, hotels, and retail. In stores, robots are checking inventory. In restaurants, robots are preparing and even serving food. They’re even cleaning airports.
The Future of Automation
What’s coming? More in the way of collaborative robots, or “cobots,” which can safely work side by side with humans. These now account for about 10% of the robot market but are growing at a rate of about 60% a year. Cobots can’t carry as much weight as traditional robots and they are slower, so they are not suitable for every application. But the space is attracting many start-ups.
Also likely to be coming is “random bin-picking,” which will involve a robot locating and picking out an item that is randomly organized in a bin and placing it somewhere else, such as on a conveyor. Force-sensing, or having a robot that can tell if it’s gripping an egg or a tomato and use just enough force to pick it up, is another innovation that would be widely applied.
One last data point to consider: on average, implementation of robotics in industrial production is only at about the 50% level; there is great potential for growth in all markets. The promise of robotics to eliminate dangerous and unpleasant jobs, free employees to do more valuable work, and help address chronic labor shortages points to a bright future.
About Jerry Osborn
Jerry Osborn has more than 30 years of experience in robotics, industrial automation, and advanced manufacturing in a variety of industries and application areas. Since 2019, he has been the Chief Executive Officer of Integrity Welding & Fabrication. Before joining his current firm, he served as Chief Operating Officer of Diversified Machine Systems and as President of KUKA Robotics Corporation. Earlier in his career he was a General Manager at ABB, responsible for managing business units that delivered industrial robots and factory automation systems to automotive OEMs, tier 1 manufacturers, and a diverse general industry base.
This industrial automation article is adapted from the GLG Webcast “The Automation Journey: Blueprint for Intelligent Operations.” If you would like access to this webcast or would like to speak with industrial automation expert Jerry Osborn, or any of our more than 900,000 industry experts, contact us.