Manufacturers across the world are confronted with multiple headwinds. First, ongoing demand for customized products which adds complexity to the entire production cycle. Second, labour shortages that leave many small-to-medium-sized manufacturers in particular unable to staff production peaks. Finally, geo-political uncertainty, particularly US-China trade conflict, and systemic shocks – most recently in the form of COVID-19.
As the 12% increase in the global operational robot stock (the total number of robots at work) recently reported by the International Federation of Robotics shows, manufacturers are turning to automation to remain competitive in this challenging environment. At the end of 2019, 2.7 million robots were at work around the globe, over three-quarters of them in manufacturing, predominantly in the automotive and electronics sectors. Detailed statistics on new sales and operational stock of robots across the world in different industry sectors and industrial applications are available in the IFR World Robotics Industrial Robots 2020 report.
As we discuss in a new information paper, ‘How Connected Robots are Transforming Manufacturing’, the rapid advances in automation technologies have expanded the range of tasks robots can perform. Robots are, increasingly, easier to install, program and re-task. Digitization means robots can transfer data to enable continuous performance optimization. Advances in communications protocols are making it easier to connect robots with other machines in the production process.
Though these advances have, in general, accelerated robot adoption, a challenging economic environment in 2019 for the manufacturing sector and the resulting tightening in capital investment led to a decrease in new robot sales for the year compared to 2018. The automotive and electronics sectors, which together account for 59% of robots in operation, were particularly under pressure. Global car and commercial vehicle production declined by 5.2% in 2019 over 2018. The automotive industry is re-structuring to address the demand for electric vehicles. The electronics sector, meanwhile, has been hit by the China-US trade conflict. These pressures were reflected in a decrease in new sales in both sectors in 2019. Nevertheless, the number of robots in operation in these sectors continues to increase, by an average of 10% annually between 2014 and 2019 in the automotive sector, and 19% on average annually in this period in the electronics sector.
China accounts for 32% of new sales of robots to the automotive industry and 51% of 2019 sales to the electrical/electronics sectors. Most of the robots sold to the automotive industry come from outside China. Chinese manufacturers focus heavily on domestic manufacturing sectors, of which there are over 100 in the country, many at very early stages of automation, such as textiles and consumer product manufacturing. The country is the number one robot market globally, accounting for 38% of new sales in 2019. China has also, since 2016, the largest operational stock of robots. Japan takes second place to China in terms of market share, but is the leading manufacturer of industrial robots, producing 47% of industrial robots sold in 2019.
Advances in robot technologies such as mobility, vision systems, grippers, connectivity and ease-of-programming are contributing to increased robot adoption in manufacturing sectors that have only recently turned to automation, such as food and beverage, textiles, wood products and plastics. The share of new robot sales in these sectors steadily increase, albeit slowly. Robot sales to the food and beverage industry have grown by 9% annually on average between 2014 to 2019 while sales of robots to the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry increased annually by 14% on average during the same period. Both the technology advances mentioned above, and new business models such as packaged robot applications, and leasing of robots, will continue to drive adoption in these sectors in the future.
Overall, the number of robots per worker continues to increase. In 2019, the average robot density (the number of robots per 10,000 workers) in the manufacturing industry was 113, an increase of 12% over 2018. Robot density varies considerably by country, from 918 robots per 10,000 workers in Singapore to 1 in Egypt, Peru or Ukraine. Naturally, the extent to which a country’s economic output is driven by the manufacturing sector impacts the level of robot density.
Despite the increase in robot adoption, manufacturers still struggle to hire qualified workers, at all levels. In the US, for example, nearly 80% of manufacturers were struggling to fill over 400,000 open positions (according the US Department of Labor Job Openings and Labor Turnover – January 2020) and one third were forced to turn down new business in 2019 due to a skills shortage, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. As we discuss in our positioning paper, Demystifying Collaborative Robots, thanks to advances in collaborative robot applications, in which employees and robot work in the same space and in many cases are in direct contact, manufacturers are now able to address the skills shortage at least in part through robotic assistants and tools. Not only does this increase the productivity of existing workers, it also offers employees an opportunity to move away from tedious, unergonomic tasks to higher-skilled and better-paid work, for example programming and overseeing robots. The market for collaborative industrial robots in manufacturing is still in its infancy, accounting for only 4.8% of the 373,000 industrial robots installed in 2019. However, sales of collaborative industrial robots increased by 11% in a difficult year which saw overall new installations decline by 12% globally. Statistics collected by the IFR on collaborative industrial robots refer to robots that are designed specially to work in collaboration with humans (also termed cobots). In addition, a large number of manufacturers are using other external technologies such as sensors and robot skins, to enable collaborative robot applications. It is not possible to capture these applications in the IFR statistics, but reports - and case studies – from IFR members give a strong indication of the promise of collaborative robotic applications, achieved through either cobots or adaptations of the robotic cell.
The COVID-19 virus has made it very difficult to make accurate predictions and this applies to forecasts of robot adoption. On the one hand, robots have come to the fore in the COVID crisis, giving manufacturers increased flexibility and enabling safe working conditions in both manufacturing and non-manufacturing environments. On the other, low economic growth resulting from COVID 19 will inevitably impact capital investments going forward. The IFR has modelled three main recovery scenarios in the World Robotics Industrial Robots 2020 report. Though varying in the annual trajectory of robot sales, all see an initial downturn in robot sales. Recovery will not take place simultaneously around the globe. While there are already promising signals from China, Europe is still at the bottom of the valley. Overall, recovery is expected for 2021 but it is unlikely that pre-crisis levels will be achieved before 2022 or 2023, depending on the further development of the COVID pandemic and its economic impact.