Tipping point: 2017 was a record-shattering year for robotics

The numbers are crazy. But that's nothing compared to what's coming.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Cobots: The robot revolution is already here

The Association for Advancing Automation (A3), an industry trade group covering robotics in North America, just released new numbers on automation sales and shipments during the first nine months of 2017.

Surprising exactly no one who's been paying attention to the rapid adoption of automation across industries, the period shattered growth records in the areas of robotics, machine vision, motion control, and motor technology.

The numbers are a good indication of how rapidly automation is being added to operations in sectors like fulfillment, light manufacturing, and even food service and healthcare.

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For the first nine months of 2017, North America saw 27,294 orders of robots valued at approximately $1.473 billion, by far the highest level ever recorded.

The figures represent growth of 14 percent in units and 10 percent in dollars compared to the same period in 2016.

Industrial robots have long been the domain of a few heavy industries, such as automotive and metals. What's telling about A3's research is that even those long-time users of automation technologies are adding a heck-of-a-lot of new capacity. Automotive-related orders are up 11 percent in units and 10 percent in dollars compared to last year.

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The growth is even higher in industries that have been priced out of automation until recently. Falling sensor prices, a host of new companies making easily-deployable, task-agnostic robots for warehouses and factories, and the race to automate fulfillment in an e-commerce ecosystem dominated by Amazon Prime have all contributed to the surge.

Non-automotive orders are up 20 percent in units and 11 percent in dollars compared to last year.

Every analyst I've spoken with over the past few months suspects we're at the beginning of the growth curve. That means the speed with which various industries will automate operations going forward is only going to increase.

That's going to have some very noticeable affects on productivity, which should rise, as well as the low- and -medium-skilled workforce, which may be in for a bumpy ride in the short term.

The growth is likely to continue in 2018, and my prediction is that it will also be the year that consumers begin seeing robots in the wild -- at work in places like hospitals, hotels, and restaurants, which are the latest sectors to begin experimenting with automation. The robots will still be a novelty, something to take a photo of, but not for long.

If 2017 has taught us anything, adoption of robotics is happening very quickly.

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