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Surging robot sales 'could reshape manufacturing'

23 February, 2015

By 2025, the widespread adoption of advanced industrial robots will boost manufacturing productivity by up to 30% in many industries, and cut labour costs by 18% or more, according to a new study from the US analyst, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

It predicts that the annual growth in sales of robots will soar by a factor of three or more over the coming decade – from 2-3% a year at present, to 10% a year by 2025. This growth will be driven partly by the falling cost of robot systems, and partly by improvements in performance, which BCG estimates will average about 5% a year.

As a result, the proportion of manufacturing tasks performed by robots will rise from around 10% at present, to 25% by 2025. The penetration level will vary between industrial sectors and between countries.

BGC estimates that this widespread adoption of robots could cut manufacturing labour costs in the world’s 25 largest goods-exporting nations by an average of 16% more than would otherwise be the case. Output per worker could rise by 10–30% above productivity gains generated by other measures. In the UK, BCG expects robots to deliver above-average labour-cost savings of 21% – putting it on a par with Germany.

Countries that adopt robots widely could see significant improvements in their competitiveness compared to the slower adopters, the study suggests. For example, South Korea could improve its cost-competiveness by more than 6% compared to the US, it predicts. Some European countries with inflexible labour laws that make it difficult for automation to replace human workers, could be suffer.

The analyst expects prices of traditional robot systems to continue to drop. For example, it reports that the average cost of an advanced robotic spot-welding installation in the US fell from $182,000 in 2005 to $133,000 in 2014, and it expects prices to drop by a further 22% over the coming decade, to reach $103,000 by 2025.

Labour cost savings that could be achieved by adopting advanced industrial robots

At the same time, a new breed of lower-cost robots is emerging which will make investing in robots increasingly attractive to smaller manufacturers. Some systems now cost as little as $25,000. And some lower-cost systems, such as Rethink Robotics’ Baxter and the robots produced by the Danish firm Universal Robots, are designed to work safely alongside human co-workers without needing the costly and cumbersome mechanical guarding systems that were essential for earlier generations of robots.

Another important cost-cutter is the ability to teach robots by moving them by hand through their required paths, thus reducing the need for specialist robot experts.

The emergence of the lower-cost, human-friendly robots that are easier to apply, will also extend the use of industrial robots into new industries and applications, such as trimming and cutting meat.

The BGC analysts suggest that one far-reaching consequence of the increasing penetration of industrial robots is that manufacturers will no longer be able simply to “chase” cheaper labour. In fact, it might become more important for them to locate their businesses where skilled automation and robotics personnel are available. 




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