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Industrial robot sales head for a record in 2011

01 September, 2011

Global sales of industrial robots almost doubled last year to more than 118,000 as the market bounced back from a recession-hit 2009, when sales had almost halved. In its latest annual report, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) predicts that robot sales will rise by a further 18% this year to hit a record level of around 140,000.

The IFR expects the market to grow at a more modest 6% per year from 2012 to 2014, when annual sales will amount to around 167,000 robots. By then, the number of robots at work in factories around the world will total about 1.3 million.

IFR president Dr Shinsuke Sakakibara warns however that it is “possible that due to a shortage of components and capacity problems, a part of these expected robot installations in 2011 will have to be shifted to 2012”. He adds that there are “certain risks” that could affect the IFR’s optimistic longer term forecast, such as a slow-down in the global economy, or even a new recession.

Global revenues from industrial robots grew by 50% last year to reach $5.7bn – although this is still below the figure for 2008. Including the costs of software, peripherals and systems engineering, the robotic systems market was worth around $17.5bn last year.

“The recovery of the global industrial robot market in 2010 was nothing less than remarkable,” comments the head of ABB Robotics, Per Vegard Nerseth (above), “and we continue to see increased interest and very strong growth across all sectors. Automotive industries are starting to reinvest, and when combined with the increased uptake in growth segments, such as electronics, solar and food & beverage, 2011 promises to be a record-breaking year for the robotics industry.”

The most dynamic markets last year were China, South Korea and the Asean region where sales almost tripled. Korea bought 23,500 industrial robots, putting it slightly ahead of Japan.

In the US, 111% more robots (14,380) were shipped during 2010 than in 2009, while in Europe the number sold (30,600) was 50% up on 2009 – but still below the peak levels of 2008 and 2009.

Germany bought around 14,000 industrial robots during 2010 – a 65% increase on 2009 and its third-largest number ever. As the German automotive sector bounced back, it ordered 172% more robots than in 2009. In Italy, robot sales rose by 57% to around 4,500 machines, after falling for two years in a row.

For the first time in 2010, global sales of robots to the electronics sector (totalling more than 25,000) outstripped those to the automotive sector (around 20,000). The IFR reports that robots are also becoming increasingly attractive for consumer products, allowing these products to be individualised with the robots providing the flexibility to switch rapidly from one product variant to another.

“Automation solutions are becoming ever more flexible and individual and therefore increasingly suitable for a wide range of industries,” points out Manfred Gundel, CEO of Kuka Robotics (above). “Beside automotive, there is an enormous potential for robot applications in general industries. New materials such as CRP (carbon fibre-reinforced plastics) and new multi-material composites are opening up innovative fields of application in stitching, braiding, bonding and handling of all kinds of fibres. And this is only the beginning.”

The IFR expects China to become the world’s largest market for robots by 2014. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of robots per 10,000 employees in the Chinese automotive sector soared from 37 to 105. Across Chinese industry as a whole, the robot density is still below 10, compared to a global average of 50. “The potential for new installations in this market is still tremendous,” the IFR says.

The world’s highest robot densities (250–300 per 10,000 employees) are currently in Japan, South Korea and Germany. India, Russia and Brazil are still below 20.

In the automotive sector, Japan is the front-runner with more than 1,400 industrial robots per 10,000 workers, followed by Italy, Germany and the US at 1,100–1,200. In non-automotive applications, Korea has the highest density (around 200), mainly because of its high number of electronics applications.

The IFR reports that following this year’s earthquake in Japan, Japanese companies are trying to diversify their production geographically. It expects this to result in substantial investments in robotics in Asia, Europe and North America.

However, robot sales in Western Europe are likely to expand more slowly than average because of the moderate increases in investment in this region. By contrast, robot installations in Eastern and Central Europe “will surge”.

Enrico Krog Iversen (above), CEO of the Danish manufacturer Universal Robots, expects the number of robots to continue growing strongly, allowing companies to save money in a similar way to outsourcing jobs. “The price of robots has fallen and robots have become smaller and easier to handle,” he points out. “The technology has simply become much more accessible. I am convinced that any company with more than six employees can create economically feasible automation. There is still great potential for automation in most industries.”

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