Sales of robots to North America's auto industry are hitting record levels as manufacturers assign them more sophisticated tasks they couldn't handle a decade ago.
Robots are getting smaller, cheaper and easier to program, but the biggest improvement is vision. Equipped with sophisticated yet inexpensive cameras, robots can identify components more easily.
Neil Dueweke, general manager of Fanuc America Corp.'s sales to transplant manufacturers, says robots are getting jobs once reserved for humans. A robot equipped with camera vision "is not an expensive add-on like 20 years ago," he said. "All you do is buy a camera for $1,500 and go at it."
For example, manufacturers can use robots to pick components out of mixed bins. And since safety software has grown more sophisticated, robots can work in closer proximity to employees.
These developments -- coupled with decreasing robot prices -- have allowed more Tier 2 suppliers to automate their lines.
In the first nine months, North American sales of automotive production robots rose 6 percent to a record 14,528 units, according to the Robotic Industries Association, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
While demand remains healthy, the growth rate has leveled a bit since 2014, when orders jumped nearly 45 percent.
"Companies of all sizes, in all sectors of the economy, are realizing the benefits of automation," said the associaton's president, Jeff Burnstein, in a statement.
Fanuc anticipated higher global demand last year when it raised robot production in Japan's Yamanashi prefecture to 5,000 robots a month from 2,000.
"It's really a wide breadth of customers," Dueweke said. "It's very strong across the board."
So how long will the sales boom continue? This year, North American automakers are expected to produce nearly 17.46 million light vehicles, according to a forecast by IHS Automotive, a consulting firm based in suburban Detroit. By 2020, IHS forecasts, that will edge up to 19.02 million units.
That's fine by Dueweke. "I think things are leveling off at a high level," he said. "I wouldn't describe it as frothy, like at the end of a business cycle. We think business will continue to be strong."