For years, manufacturing experts reported steady growth in the use of automation. Now, however, growth has exploded at a record pace, and industries all around the globe are embracing robotic solutions.
A report in May from the Association for Advancing Automation said North American companies purchased the most robots ever in a single quarter in the first three months of 2022. The value of robots sold reached $646 million, a 25 percent increase over the previous best quarter, which was the fourth quarter of 2021. Each industry segment experienced double-digit growth over the same quarter of 2021.
“Every industry, including agriculture, construction, retail and hospital is now looking at how they can take advantage of robotics to make their companies more successful,’’ said Alex Shikany, A3’s Vice President of membership and business intelligence.
One of the reasons for the increased use of automation is the decrease in cost. The barrier to entry in automation has declined and even smaller mom-and-pop businesses now use automated solutions. For as little as $5,000, companies can find a robot to do jobs that previously required manual labor.
“Businesses today are under constant pressure to lower costs while improving operational efficiency,” said Alexander Mühlens, Head of low-cost automation at igus, a Germany-based manufacturer of motion plastics. Its products have been incorporated in many low-cost automation applications. “Labor shortages, reducing costs, improving workflows. and reducing workplace accidents are among the reasons why organizations are seeking automated solutions.”
Roose’s Chocolate World, based in Belgium, is using an automated solution, “ChocoMatic,” that doesn’t break the bank.
The chocolate shop uses a robolink® robot from igus, which uses a seventh axis, and packs items in full display of customers. Using a touchscreen terminal, a customer puts together a collection of chocolates and places a transport box on the base of a robotic arm. The selections can also be made with a smart phone.
At the click of the customer, the robot moves up and down the glass room and pivots its arm in all directions, reaching into the displays. It picks up chocolates with a suction pad, wraps the delicacies in gold foil, and places them neatly in the box. The customer receives the order, and the automated unit returns to its starting position.
To make “ChocoMatic” come to life, Roose purchased the robolink® robotic arm for around $5,900. It also purchased a control system for around $2,000. “Companies need cost-effective, and above all, easy-to-operate solutions that any company can use without incurring high costs and integration effort,’’ Mühlens said.
For many years, automation costs proved too substantial for many smaller companies to clear. The costly barrier to entry discouraged many companies from seeking automated solutions. For many businesses, the key is to start small.
“Unlike large-scale industrial robotic systems, lightweight robots are more versatile and cost effective, allowing for a greater range of applications,’’ Mühlens said. “Due to their low weight, the robots can be easily moved from workplace to workplace and integrated into the ongoing work process. Less weight mass also equates to energy savings, less wear, and lower risks in cases of safety.”
As businesses adapt to the trend, businesses can expect to see even more automated solutions. According to the Association of Advancing Automation, the first quarter of 2022 marked the seventh time in the last nine quarters where non-automotive customers ordered more robots than automotive customers. Unit sales to automotive OEMs were up 15 percent. Unit sales to metals (up 40 percent), semiconductors and electronics (23 percent) and food and consumer goods (21 percent) were among those that outpaced sales to automotive.
“As robots continually become easier to use and more affordable, we expect to see adoption continue to rise in every industry and at companies of all sizes,’’ said Jeff Burnstein, president of A3. “There are hundreds of thousands of companies in North American who have yet to install even one robot.”
Sooner or later, many of those companies will need to embrace automation. Not only can automation contain costs, but it can also improve efficiency and provide a boost to the bottom line. The rewards, businesses are finding, now outweigh the costs – especially as they start with automation.
“Our goal is to make low-cost automation as accessible as possible,’’ Mühlens said. “We have customers that are as diverse as their applications. Some are just looking for compatible hardware and do the rest of the integration journey by themselves. And some users need help with the design. It’s exciting that affordable solutions allow anyone to start their automation journey.”
This article was written by Thomas Renner. Renner writes about engineering, construction, architecture, and other topics for trade industry publications throughout the United States. For more information, visit here .