Who’s winning the robot race?

27 August 2018

Nigel Smith looks at who is leading the way in the race for automated production.

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

Asia has been the strongest market for robotics for some time and a significant percentage of the 380,550 robot units sold globally in 2017 will have been deployed to Asian factories. Indeed the region reported record-breaking robot sales for the past four years in a row, rising by 19% in 2017. 

In 2015, the Chinese government announced Made in China 2025 (MiC2015) a national initiative to reboot the country’s manufacturing sector. Similarly, Japan launched its own transformation project in 2017, named Society 5.0. The scheme aims to go beyond Germany’s 2011 Industrie 4.0 initiative by considering the challenges that these new technologies will bring to society, rather than solely focusing on their use in manufacturing.  

Europe, the second largest market for industrial robot sales, also increased its volume of robot deployment in 2017. Purchasing 56,000 units in total, the continent reached a new peak for robot sales for the third year in a row. However, much of this deployment was attributed to Germany, currently the fifth largest robot market in the world. 

Automotive industry
Much of Europe’s deployment of robotic technology is also related to the automotive industry so it is 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 their 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. TM Robotics’ ‘Global Robotics Report 2018’ found that simple programming was one of the most important features when choosing a SCARA, Cartesian or six-axis model –79% of respondents named this as a top five consideration. 

Easy robot programming also provides established users with reduced programming time. Growing demand for easily programmable robots is also evident in the rapid increase in sales of collaborative models – robots that can work without protective barriers between machine and employee. 

Collaborative robots (cobots) currently 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 boast some impressive responsive features, generally they cannot tackle the dangerous, repetitive and heavy-duty tasks usually associated with industrial robots Of the respondents to the Global Robotics Report agree, 55% did not believe that cobot technology is 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,” explained Peter Williamson, managing director of RARUK Automation. “The growth in the cobot market represents cobots as an ideal first step towards automation, but there’s more than one route to deploying robotics in a facility. We have developed a varied range of automation technologies which ensures we can deliver the right kind of automation to our customers, dependant on the application.”

The IFR predicts that the robot 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 scope for other nations to catch up. 

Nigel Smith is managing director of industrial robot distributor, TM Robotics.

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