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Make Way, Chevrolet: Food, Other Sectors Now Dominate Robot Orders

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It’s not just for automakers anymore. Other sectors, including food and consumer goods, have learned how to piece together automation solutions. (iStock/LewisTsePuiLung)

When people think of industrial robots, the first image that might come to mind is a line of vehicle chassis working their way down a gauntlet of robotic arms ceaselessly welding, assembling and otherwise moving with synchronized precision. And, indeed, since the first industrial robot was installed at a General Motors plant in 1959, carmakers have dominated the use of these automated tools.

That changed in 2020. In a year that was full of other momentous developments, orders of robots from non-automotive sectors surpassed automotive robot orders for the first time ever. Overall, sales of robotic units in North America increased 3.5% in 2020 from 2019, the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and Association for Advancing Automation (AAA) reported.

“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,” commented Mark Joppru, a vice president with US ABB Robotics and Machine Automation. “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. While these trends have existed for several years, COVID-19 has changed perceptions and priorities for customers, accelerating the adoption of robotic automation.”

Automotive orders of robotics increased 39% in 2020. That growth was surpassed by orders from businesses in life sciences, which increased by 69%; food and consumer goods, which grew by 56%; and plastics and rubber, 51%. RIA/AAA credited the growth in non-automotive sectors to a growing robotics “competence level” in those industries, as well as dramatic changes in consumer behavior, particularly in the purchase of food and consumer goods. The e-commerce boom has many companies looking for new ways to automate their fulfillment processes at a time when they seem to be having trouble finding qualified employees.

“With the changes in people’s personal buying behavior caused by COVID-19, 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, Yaskawa Motoman segment leader for handling. “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.”

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