What happened to the industrial robots market in 2018?

What happened to the industrial robots market in 2018?
The year 2018 was quite eventful for the entire robotics industry. From the shutdown of Rethink Robotics to exciting products from Boston Robotics and the launch of self-driving cars from Waymo, there were several ups and downs for the industry.

Industrial robots, in particular, have seen increased adoption over the past year. In 2017 alone, 380,550 units were sold according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), which was 29 percent more than the year previous to that. China had led the growth, with the US and Germany close behind. As we await a final report of 2018, growth is expected to have increased further.
Speaking of trends that were seen in 2018, Hui Zhang, Product Manager for Robotics at ABB gave few major points.

Less volume, more variety


Gone are the days when manufacturing was just about producing a single product in large quantities. Today, there is more emphasis on smaller quantities with more variations.

“Continuation of the shift from making large volumes of the same product to making much smaller lots of greater variety, e.g. ‘mass customization’ which has become the new normal in industries from automotive to electronics to even foods,” Zhang said. This means factories need to be more flexible to accommodate a wider variety of products and packages on the same production line and to switch with agility between products. Many manufacturers struggle with this and find old, proven automation solutions are no longer flexible enough to help them keep pace with all this change.”

Increased flexibility


What such a refocus and the pressures that came with it have done is that they have increased investments in more efficient and flexible robot automation solutions in ‘lighter’ industries such as food and beverage or electronics manufacturing.
“In food and beverage, robots were traditionally used to automate simpler processes like loading packages onto pallets,” Zhang said. “Today they are increasingly used for higher value processes, e.g. directly preparing the food. In electronics, which has very high mass customization, robots are helping balance the imperatives of flexibility, high quality, and fast cycle times.”

Workforce influence


Automation investments are being driven by changes in the workforce. Many countries today face a ‘demographic time bomb’ – they have aging populations approaching retirement and little relief in the pipeline as young people want mentally rewarding challenges, not physical ones. Many countries and industries are already experiencing labor shortages and skills gaps, or will be in the coming years.

“People are less willing to do jobs which are dull, dirty, dangerous or delicate,” Zhang said. “Many manufacturers are using automation to offset labor shortages, especially to accommodate peak demand or in industries with unattractive jobs that have high turnover. The days of chasing cheap labor around the world are over – global manufacturers need to be able to produce with consistency, close to end users.”

Evolving technology


Finally, the industrial robots industry has also been influenced by the changes in demand for new technology. For instance, even in mature and highly automated industries such as automotive, there is continued investment being driven by the need for an efficient transition from internal combustion vehicles to electric vehicles.

“This requires new manufacturing processes in traditional areas like the powertrain, as well as entirely new processes for areas like battery assembly automation, which is very complex and needs to accommodate many design variations,” Zhang said.
Carmakers are also looking to robots to automate areas of manufacturing that have traditionally been very manual, such as the final trim and assembly on a car. In the past this involved tasks that were difficult to automate, such as connecting all of a car’s delicate electronics.
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