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A 38% surge in sales pushes global robot market above $25bn

30 August, 2012

The number of industrial robots sold around the world last year soared by 38% to hit an all-time high of 166,028. The value of the robot sales surged by 46% to $8.5bn – another new record. If the cost of software, peripherals and systems engineering is included, the global market for robot systems was worth an estimated $25.5bn in 2011.

The figures come from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), whose newly-published annual report predicts that robot sales will expand by a further 9% this year to reach about 181,000, despite the weakening global economic situation. Between 2013 and 2015, it expects global sales to increase by an average of about 5% per year, taking the annual supply of industrial robots above the 200,000 mark by 2015.

Last year, Japan was again the world’s largest robot market, with the number of robots sold soaring by 27% to reach almost 28,000, driven partly by the need to replace systems destroyed by the 11 March tsunami. Japan was followed closely by South Korea, where robot sales increased by 9% to 25,500. This marked a slowdown from 2010 when Korea topped the list. In the US, robot shipments increased by 43% in 2011 to hit a new peak of 20,555.

In 2011, China bought 22,600 industrial robots – 51% more than in 2010. Between 2006 and 2011, the annual supply to China quadrupled. In the 50-year history of industrial robots, no other country has shown such a dynamic growth in robot installations over such a short period.

Germany remains Europe’s biggest market for industrial robots with a 39% spurt in sales during 2011 to reach 19,500. This is by far the largest number ever recorded for one year and it is about 45% of the total number of robots sold to Europe. In Italy, sales of industrial robots rose by 13% to 5,100.

The IFR predicts that 2012 robot sales in Germany will be slightly down on 2011, while it expects a downturn in Italy and Spain due to the worsening economic situation.

The automotive industry is still the world’s biggest user of industrial robots. The IFR expects the growth in robot sales during 2012 to be driven mainly by the automotive and electronics industries, and by a growing number of customers from other industries with low-volume orders.

At the end of 2011, there were about 55 robots installed per 10,000 employees in the global manufacturing industry (as shown in the graph above). South Korea, Japan and Germany are the most highly automated countries with robot densities of 347–261 per 10,000 employees. The UK is one of the slowest adopters in the industrialised world, with a robot penetration only slightly above the global average.

Japan has, by far, the highest robot density in the automotive sector, with almost 1,600 industrial robots installed per 10,000 persons employed. It is followed by Italy, Germany and the US with robot densities of 1,100–1,200. South Korea and Japan have the largest number of robots operating in non-automotive applications, with 261 and 221 robots per 10,000, respectively.

The IFR predicts that China will soon become the world’s biggest robot market in terms of the number of robots installed, but it points out that to achieve similar robot densities to Japan or Germany, China will need to install about one million robots.

However, the IFR expects the growth rate of robot installations in China to slow down in 2012 as a result of the difficult global economic situation and the end of an investment cycle in the automotive sector.

The Federation is also predicting that SMEs (small and mid-sized companies) around the world will increase their investment in robotics due to the emergence of easier-to-use robots and robots designed to collaborate with human workers. Easier integration will also open up more applications. Another driving factor will be the pressure to abolish dangerous, tedious and dirty working conditions for human workers worldwide.

The IFR concedes that there are some risks that could affect its “rather optimistic” forecasts. For example, financial problems in the major markets could reduce the growth of the global economy. This may delay some investments in robotics, but the IFR is confident that the trend towards automation will continue at a later point, meeting the needs to increase productivity and profitability and to guarantee sustainability of industrial production.

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