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Pharma, food lead robotics surge

March 8, 2021

While the automotive industry has long been the largest investor in robotic solutions, 2020 marked an inflection point. For first time, non-automotive sectors surpassed automotive robot orders, even as sales of robotic units in North America increased 3.5% in 2020 from 2019, both despite of—and because of—the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the 2020 growth leaders were life sciences that increased investment by 69%; food and consumer goods that grew by 56%; and plastics and rubber that saw a 51% increase. Automotive orders increased 39% in 2020 despite an estimated 15% decrease in revenues for the sector.

These and other industry statistics released by the Robotics Industry Assn. (RIA) show that North American companies ordered 31,044 robotic units, valued at $1.572 billion in 2020.

“The surge in robot orders that we’re seeing, despite the pandemic, demonstrates the growing interest in robotic and automation solutions,” says Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), non-profit parent to RIA. “It’s promising to see the growth of robotics in new applications and reaching a wider group of users than ever before.“

“In 2020, we saw two trends in particular that propelled growth in non-automotive orders for robotics technology,” adds John Bubnikovich, chief regional officer–North America, Kuka Robotics. “First, the automation competence level in 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.”

“We have seen a substantial increase in activity in non-automotive sectors, as customers focus on making their production lines more flexible and better able to efficiently achieve high mix, lower volume production in response to constantly evolving customer demands,” says Mark Joppru, vice president–consumer segment and service robotics, ABB Robotics and Machine Automation. “In food applications, for example, where robots were traditionally used to automate simpler processes like case loading, they're increasingly being commissioned for higher value processes, like directly preparing food, resulting in improvements to food safety and hygiene. While these trends have existed for several years, COVID has changed perceptions and priorities for customers, accelerating the adoption of robotic automation.”

In August 2020, A3 reported on the strain on supply chains and economic uncertainty due to COVID-19. Alex Shikany, VP of membership and business intelligence at A3, noted that despite a drop in orders, industry leaders showed optimism about the rest of 2020, and accurately predicted the strong finish to 2020.

“The pandemic has created a sense of urgency for manufacturing companies to invest in automation like never before,” says Mike Cicco, president and CEO of Fanuc America. “Traditionally, companies implemented automation to reduce costs, increase output, and improve quality. However, the pandemic has added an additional factor that's driving manufacturers to re-examine their supply chains to increase flexibility, minimize disruptions, and move it closer to 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.”

To help educate users and potential users about how to successfully apply robotics, A3 will hold Automate Forward, a virtual conference and tradeshow March 22-26. Visit https://www.automateshow.com/conference/automate-forward for more information.