Orders for robots soared in North America at year-end as manufacturers attempted to grapple with the rising toll of covid-19 and avoid putting employees at risk.
Companies ordered 9,972 robots in the fourth quarter, up 64% from a year earlier. That lifted the annual total to 31,044 units, up 3.5%, the Association for Advancing Automation reported Thursday. And for the first time, automakers didn’t lead demand.
“The pandemic has created a sense of urgency for manufacturing companies to invest in automation like never before,” said Mike Cicco, chief executive officer of the Americas unit of Fanuc Corp., a Japanese robot maker.
The need for automation became apparent outside the auto industry as workforces were hobbled by coronavirus infections, making it difficult to keep up with demand. Sales rose in some industries as household income that would have been spent on restaurants and entertainment went instead to consumer goods. Robot orders in food and consumer goods, life sciences, and plastics and rubber industries all rose more than 50% last year.
Technological advances — such as improved vision, mobility and end-of-arm tools for grabbing objects — have expanded the uses for automation. Machine learning, meanwhile, has made it much easier to program robots for complex tasks that couldn’t be done before, such as preparing food.
It wasn’t long ago that almost all robots were fenced in to keep humans safe. Now, with sensors that stop the machines when people approach, more robots are working alongside employees.
“The automation competence level in general industry has grown, and that matured into greater demand,” said John Bubnikovich, chief regional officer for North America at Germany’s Kuka.
Most of last year’s gain in orders came in the second half. In the first, North American robot orders dropped 18% as companies struggled to understand the impact of the lockdowns. Then demand accelerated, with the final three months of the year registering the second strongest quarter ever, behind the fourth quarter of 2016.
FedEx Corp. in March installed four robots in a pilot program at its Express unit in Memphis, Tennessee, to pick small packages of different sizes and shapes from a bin and put them on a conveyor for sorting.
With the robots handling as many as 1,300 packages an hour, FedEx workers are freed up to do more complex work, such as correcting addresses and dealing with delays, Aaron Prather, senior technical adviser at FedEx Express, said in an October presentation. FedEx plans to add more robots this year, he said.