Even robots are having trouble finding work

North American-based robotics companies report that new orders sold to North American manufacturing companies fell by 21% in units and 16% in dollars in 2008 compared to 2007. The sharp decline accelerated in the fourth quarter when orders fell by 26% in units and 33% in dollars compared with last year.


North American-based robotics companies report that new orders sold to North American manufacturing companies fell by 21% in units and 16% in dollars in 2008 compared to 2007. The sharp decline accelerated in the fourth quarter when orders fell by 26% in units and 33% in dollars compared with last year.

A total of 12,557 robots valued at $894.9 million were ordered by North American companies in 2008, down from 15,856 robots valued at $1.07 billion last year. When sales to companies outside North America are included, the totals are 14,109 robots valued at $979.4 million, a drop of 18% in units and 15% in dollars.

“2008 was extremely difficult for our members and 2009 likely will be a very rough year as manufacturing companies throughout the world deal with the global economic crisis,” said Jeffrey A. Burnstein, executive vice president of Robotic Industries Association (RIA), the industry's trade group.

“Capital equipment expenditures are slowing dramatically in the automotive industry, traditionally the largest customer for robotics. In 2008, orders from automotive OEMs and their suppliers fell 37% in units and 32% in dollars,” Burnstein said.

Despite the current difficulties in the automotive industry, there is reason for optimism, said Tammy Mulch of ABB Robotics, chair of Rica's Statistics Committee.

“In times of rising energy costs and rising environmental awareness, the demand for smaller, more economical, environmentally friendly and lower cost cars are becoming increasingly important,” Mulch noted. “In order to meet these demands in the short term, the car companies will have to restructure and to speed up development of these types of new models. I am sure the automotive industry will introduce new cars with less consumption, reduced emission and innovative technology. This will require new automation technology throughout the value chain. Robotics will surely benefit from such investments,” she asserted.

Burnstein noted that there's also reason for optimism based on the strong non-automotive results in 2008.

“Non-automotive orders rose 9% in units and 7% in dollars over 2007. The strongest gains came in the semiconductor/electronics/photonics markets, where units rose 63% and dollars jumped 55%. Plastics and rubber orders increased 39% in units, 12% in dollars, while food and consumer goods saw increases of 3% in units and 51% in dollars,” Burnstein explained.

“Non-automotive orders actually topped automotive orders, in terms of dollars, for the first time since we began collecting numbers 25 years ago,” Burnstein noted. “In terms of units, the breakdown was 51% automotive, 49% non-automotive. This is very important for our industry as we continue to make progress in reaching new customers.”

RIA estimates that more than 186,000 robots are now being used in the United States, placing the U.S. second only to Japan in overall robot use. It's estimated that more than one million robots are being used worldwide, with countries such as China and India rapidly expanding their investments in robotics.

“Despite the financial crisis, there are great opportunities to expand the use of robotics in North America,” Burnstein said. “In 2009, we're holding our International Robots, Vision & Motion Control Show (June 9-11, Rosemont, IL) that highlights the latest products and solutions. The show is held just once every two years and gives users and potential users a great way to find answers to their manufacturing challenges.

“The need for improved productivity and product quality, flexibility, speed %%MDASSML%% these challenges don't disappear, if anything they become greater, when there's a downturn. We're hopeful that the show will be a catalyst to stimulate the market in the second half of the year,” Burnstein said.

Robot sales to manufacturing fell 18% in 2008, and industry experts don't expect things to get much better in 2009.

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