Robotics suppliers post record business in North America

Robotic arms flip the chassis of a Corvette Stingray in a body shop retooled by GM last year for $52 million.

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Robotics suppliers, paced by automakers preparing for new-product launches, posted records for orders in North America during the second quarter and first half of the year, an industry trade group reported today.

The Robotic Industries Association said orders for robotics -- a bellwether statistic for the automotive industry -- increased 31 percent to 8,197 units during the second quarter. Automakers and their suppliers, the largest component in that statistic, nearly doubled their orders, up an “unprecedented” 97 percent, the association said.

The total value of robots ordered in the quarter rose 17 percent to $450 million.

For the first half of the year, North American robot orders rose 30 percent to 14,135 and the total value gained 16 percent to $788 million, the association said.

Automotive orders increased 36 percent for the first half of 2014 compared with the first half of 2013.

The RIA represents 325 robot manufacturers and related companies, and its analysis was based on reported robot sales from North American suppliers to other companies in the region. Some of the key automotive players in the segment include Fanuc Corp., ABB Robotics, Yaskawa Motoman, and KUKA Robotics Corp.

Robotics orders hit peaks in 2005 and 2007, before slumping to below 10,000 in 2009. Orders recovered along with the rest of the automotive industry, reaching a record 22,500 in 2012.

Based on the first half, RIA expects 15 to 20 percent growth for 2014, receiving nearly 28,000 robotics orders for the year.

Jay Baron, CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, said in an e-mail that the cost of robots has considerably decreased during the past 10 years, while their capability in terms of repeatability and payload has increased.

“Robots are slowly replacing hard fixtures because of their repeatability,” Baron wrote. “This saves money, floor space and increases production line flexibility as the robots can be programmed to handle several different models.”

He added that the smaller average size of robots and capabilities such as image recognition and laser scanning allow for higher unit density on the manufacturing floor covering more operations.

RIA spokesman Bob Doyle said the increase in automation of manufacturing at automakers and suppliers is a positive sign for job growth, specifically for skilled technical workers for the programming and maintenance of the robotics units.

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