As companies continue to adapt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, robotic automation has become a glimmer of hope for many.

Robotics Blog: Robotics Automation Explores New Frontiers

Mar 9, 2021

by Carlos M. Gonzalez

Many industries have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the robotics industry has provided a glimmer of hope. Supply chain disruption and labor restrictions have highlighted the need for increased flexibility within the manufacturing and logistics sectors. For companies to not only survive the pandemic but also transition their operations to be more controllable and mitigate risk, robotic automation provides a solution.
 
A recent panel at Robotics Week hosted by the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) shared an optimistic view of how robotics can address the labor and manufacturing disruption caused by the pandemic.
 
The panel consisted of CEOs and presidents of ATI Industrial Automation, FANUC America, Harmonic Drive, KUKA Robotics, and SCHUNK. The executive panel discussed how robotic growth was driven by industries outside of the automotive sector for the first time in history. The boom in medical, agriculture, and e-commerce applications significantly contributed to the robotic industry in 2020.
 
“The surge in robot orders that we’re seeing, despite the pandemic, demonstrates the growing interest in robotic and automation solutions,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, said in a recent press release. “It’s promising to see the growth of robotics in new applications and reaching a wider group of users than ever before.”
 
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According to the RIA, North American companies ordered 31,044 robotic units, valued at $1.6 billion in 2020, and in the fourth quarter alone, companies ordered 9,972 units valued at $479 million. Exploring the breakdown of those purchases, 69 percent were in life sciences, pharmaceuticals, and biomedical applications, closely followed by food and consumer goods at 56 percent. In comparison, automotive orders grew only by 39 percent.
 
“The pandemic has created a sense of urgency for manufacturing companies to invest in automation like never before,” said Mike Cicco, president and CEO of FANUC America, in the same press release. “Traditionally, companies have implemented automation to reduce cost, increase output, and improve quality. However, the pandemic has added an additional factor that is driving manufacturers to re-examine their supply chain to increase flexibility, minimize disruptions, and move it closer to their customers. With this mindset, there are more opportunities for scaling robotic applications across multiple facilities, especially for larger companies.”
 
The RIA has listed different examples of how robots have been used to introduce automation in socially distant work settings. For instance, in logistics centers for e-commerce such as warehouses, collaborative robots (cobots) have been used to pick and place objects. Companies like Universal Robots and Fanuc have both implemented solutions to help companies deliver more goods in the face of increasing online orders. Within the next decade, cobots will comprise 29 percent of the industrial robotics market, rising by 21 points from 8 percent in 2020.

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Reshoring efforts will also drive robotic adoption. Even before the pandemic, the conversation around reshoring was picking up interest due to rising labor costs in traditional low-wage regions and increasing international trade disputes. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the dependence on global supply chains, and its disruption highlighted the need for automation.
 
A Bank of America Global Research report predicts that new high-tech, higher-paying jobs, increased innovation, and a positive ripple effect on local economies are coming soon. This effort will be driven by investments in automation and digital technologies.
 
The pandemic has forced the industry to change, and these changes are here to stay. Just as digital transformation has created a new culture of remote living, so has robotics created a new automated work environment that is becoming the new normal.  
 
Carlos M. González is special projects manager.

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