In a previous blog post we discussed why there is such a need for automated guided vehicles in American manufacturing. 2017 was a banner year for the North American automation market, demonstrating that demand. The year set new records in the first three quarters in robotics, machine vision, motion control, and motor technology. According to wired.com, “2017 was the year that robots really, truly arrived.”
Jeff Burnstein, president of Association for Advancing Automation agrees. “The market for robotics and automation continues at a healthy growth rate. It’s evident that the investment companies are making in these automation technologies is having a positive impact on productivity and competitiveness, while saving and creating new jobs in North America.”
Why did automation break out in 2017? Roboticist Sebastian Thrun believes it was a confluence of factors, including hardware becoming cheaper and intelligence better at the same time. Only very recently have computers become smart enough and robot hardware reliable enough to make the kinds of literal leaps robotics has. Atlas, the humanoid robot developed by Boston Dynamics, can do actual backflips.
For robots to go beyond working in a specified, flat-floored work envelope, they need to be able to sense the changes in their environment. That requirement depended on the development of much better sensor technology than was available until recently. Cameras and lasers are both more powerful and more affordable now, making advanced robots both possible and affordable for more companies.
What kind of numbers are we looking at? In the first three quarters of 2017, companies in North America ordered 27,294 robots at a cost of approximately $1.473 billion. That number was up 14% from 2016. Automotive orders were up 11% and non-automotive orders 20%. The industries with the largest demand for automated technology were Metals, Automotive Components, and Food and Consumer Goods.
While robots and AGVs have been used for a long time in manufacturing and fabrication, those sectors of the economy seem primed to add even more in the days ahead. With the price of this technology dropping quickly, other sectors, like food service, hospitality, and healthcare, are also looking to add them.
Analysts say that this is only the beginning of the growth spike which will continue in 2018. While companies understand that there are definite advantages to adding automation to the floor, and many of these robots do jobs that workers cannot do and so do not always replace workers, adding them will have an impact on the low- and medium-skilled workforce. This will put employers on the defensive for at least the short term. However, for many companies, the advantages in safety and reliability these robots can deliver will make it worthwhile.