January 28, 2021

ABB automotive 400x275For the first time on record, yearly orders of robots from non-automotive sectors surpassed automotive robot orders in North America, according to the Robotics Industries Association. In addition, fourth-quarter sales saw a surge in robotics sales, up more than 63% compared with the same quarter in 2019.

The RIA, part of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), said North American companies ordered 31,044 robotic units, with a value of $1.572 billion in 2020 (a 3.5% year-over-year increase from 2019). Specifically, within Q4, companies ordered 9,972 units, valued at $479 million.

“The surge in robot orders that we’re seeing, despite the pandemic, demonstrates the growing interest in robotic and automation solutions,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of A3. “It’s promising to see the growth of robotics in new applications and reaching a wider group of users than ever before.”

For specific vertical segments, orders in life sciences increased by 69%, food and consumer goods grew by 56%, and plastics and rubber grew by 51%, the RIA reported. Meanwhile, automotive orders increased 39% in 2020.

“In 2020, we saw two trends in particular that propelled growth in non-automotive orders for robotics technology,” said John Bubnikovich, chief regional officer - North America, KUKA Robotics. “First, the automation competence level in the general industry has grown, and that matured into greater demand for the technology. Second, consumer behavior shifted significantly and the expectations created by this shift were tough to satisfy without automation.”

Examining the supply chain

In addition, supply chain disruptions and workforce instability led companies to accelerate their automation strategies, which is being noticed by other robot manufacturers.

“With the changes in people’s personal buying behavior caused by COVID, robots have been utilized in record numbers to allow for the fulfillment of orders in the e-commerce space while allowing for correct social distancing practices,” said Dean Elkins, segment leader - handling, at Yaskawa Motoman. “In addition, robots largely aided in the production of personal protection and testing equipment and the medical devices needed to keep our society healthy and safe.”

Increases in the non-automotive sectors are also due to companies making production lines more flexible in order to achieve high mix, lower volume production to respond to customer demands. “In food applications, for example, where robots were traditionally used to automate simpler processes like case loading, they are increasingly being commissioned for higher-value processes, like directly preparing food, resulting in improvements to food safety and hygiene,” said Mark Joppru, vice president of consumer segment and service robotics at ABB. “While these trends have existed for several years, COVID has changed perceptions and priorities for customers, accelerating the adoption of robotic automation.”

The surge of orders in Q4 shows a willingness for companies to explore robotics and automation as they emerge into a post-pandemic economy. “The pandemic has created a sense of urgency for manufacturing companies to invest in automation like never before,” said Mike Cicco, president and CEO of FANUC America. “Traditionally, companies have implemented automation to reduce cost, increase output, and improve quality. The pandemic has added an additional factor that is driving manufacturers to re-examine their supply chain to increase flexibility, minimize disruptions, and move it closer to their customers. With this mindset, there are more opportunities for scaling robotic applications across multiple facilities, especially for larger companies. The untapped potential for automation is a promising sign for our industry; the opportunities for automation today are truly limitless.”

The A3 said it will explore several of these trends at its Automate Forward virtual event, to be held March 22-26 online, with more than 80 speakers and vendors from more than 160 automation companies. Click here to register.

Sponsored Content

Modular Automation Enables Flexible Production Line Layout


Modular automation is the next phase of factory automation where the same production line is separated into modules and can be quickly reconfigured to adapt to different needs. Modular automation compatible products by Oriental Motor include the compact and lightweight DC-powered products, such as the AZ Series mini driver and the BLV Series R Type.


See Compatible Products, Applications, Case Studies, Videos