Last year, shipments of industrial robots to companies in North America rose 7% to a record 35,880 units, according to the Robotic Industries Association. In a major shift, the increase was fueled by nonautomotive companies, it said.
Robot shipments for food and consumer goods companies jumped 48% last year. Other industries showing notable growth include plastics and rubber, up 37%; life sciences, up 31%; and electronics, up 22%.
Meanwhile, shipments of robots to automakers fell 12% as those companies curtailed capital equipment spending. The auto sector still accounted for 53% of total shipments. But that's its lowest percentage share since 2010, the trade group said.
Industrial Robots: Healthy Sales Growth
The generally upward trend is positive for major robot vendors, including the "big four" of industrial automation: ABB (ABB), Fanuc, Kuka and Yaskawa Motoman. Others include Denso, Kawasaki, Lincoln Electric (LECO) and Teradyne (TER).
"The health of the industrial robot space right now is the strongest it's ever been," Alexander Shikany, vice president for the Association for Advancing Automation, or A3, told Investor's Business Daily. A3 is the parent organization of the Robotic Industries Association.
The trade group has seen an uptick in interest in automation technology from buyers at industry events. The group's biennial Automate conference, being held April 8-11 in Chicago, will be the largest yet, Shikany said.
"The major growth in this area has been within the small and medium-size enterprises," Shikany said. That's because industrial robots are more affordable and sophisticated than ever, he said.
Factory Robots Good For 'Dull, Dirty, Dangerous' Jobs
U.S. manufacturers are using automation to stay competitive in the global marketplace, said Bob Doyle, vice president of the Robotic Industries Association. Industrial robots can improve efficiency, productivity and quality, he told IBD.
"With unemployment being so low, companies are having a hard time finding people to fill these jobs so they're turning to automation," Doyle said.
The value of the industrial robots shipped in North America last year topped $1.8 billion, the Robotic Industries Association said. The top two applications for factory robots are material handling and spot welding. Other major uses include arc welding, coating and dispensing, and assembly.
Helping To Create Jobs?
Industrial robots are ideal for "dull, dirty and dangerous" jobs, Doyle said. He also disputed the notion that robots are job killers.
"What we've seen is that automation helps save and create jobs and leads to more productivity," he said.
The trade group predicts that growth in shipments of industrial robots will slow in 2019 as the automotive industry continues to pull back.
"This year nonautomotive might be larger than automotive," Doyle said. "Typically, automotive is 70% of the market."