DETROIT—The auto industry has long been the top customer for industrial robots.
But an odd thing happened in 2020: For the first time in recent memory, orders for nonautomotive robots surpassed those for automotive robots in North America. That's according to the Robotic Industries Association. The group, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., is part of the Association for Advancing Automation and has data going back to 1984.
In North America, auto companies and suppliers ordered 15,045 robots last year, worth nearly $830 million. Companies in other industries ordered a combined 15,999 robots, worth about $744 million. Automotive robot orders grew 39 percent, while orders grew 69 percent in the life sciences, 56 percent in food and consumer goods and 51 percent in plastics and rubber.
"In 2020, we saw two trends in particular that propelled growth in nonautomotive orders for robotics technology," said John Bubnikovich, chief regional officer, North America, for Kuka Robotics, in an automation association release.
"First, the automation competence level in general industry has grown, and that matured into greater demand for the technology. Second, consumer behavior shifted significantly, and the expectations created by this shift were tough to satisfy without automation."
Mike Cicco, CEO of robot supplier Fanuc America, sees untapped potential for growth in the robotics industry.
"The pandemic has created a sense of urgency for manufacturing companies to invest in automation like never before," Cicco said in the automation association release.
"Traditionally, companies have implemented automation to reduce cost, increase output, and improve quality. However, the pandemic has added an additional factor that is driving manufacturers to re-examine their supply chain to increase flexibility, minimize disruptions, and move it closer to their customers."