The term robotics was first coined by a science fiction writer in the 1940’s, and was for a long time restricted to the industrial robots of highly labour-intensive industries. The time for a much wider use of robots seems to have finally come.
Created by Isaac Asimov in 1942 in one of his short stories portraying robots as helpful servants of man, robotics were popularised in the 1960’s by Joseph Engleberger. The first modern industrial robots with mechanical arms that could be programmed were able to complete repetitive tasks such as painting, welding, assembling, picking up and placing objects in factories. The use of robots has historically been concentrated in highly labour intensive sectors like the automobile, electrical equipment, machinery, computer and electronic product industries. The high cost of setting up robotic systems has limited their usage to factories owned by large corporations with significant capital budgets.
THE SPREAD OF INDUSTRIAL ROBOTS
The technical and economic barriers to a wider use of robotics are now beginning to fall however. According to BCG, a consulting firm, the total cost of setting up a robot system for spot welding in the United States fell from 183,000 dollars in 2005 to approximately 133,000 dollars in 2014 and is expected to fall further to 103,000 dollars in 2025.
Simultaneously, robotic productivity is expected to improve by approximately 5% every year. Progress made in vision sensors and gripping systems are now also enabling robots to perform complex, dangerous and repetitive tasks with minimal human intervention. Japanese robotics giant Fanuc, for instance, recently demonstrated a high-speed robot that can install very small electronic parts called connectors at high speed and with minute precision to manufacture automotive batteries. Until now, this process was entirely manual, requiring human labour. The continued improvements in cost, performance and functionality of robotic systems should drive their wider adoption by small and mid-sized firms, in addition to multi-national corporations.
The automobile industry is the first to be concerned by this on-going 4th industrial revolution, with the digitalisation of factories driven by robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. The industry acquired more than 40% of the professional robots sold in 2014, with German players viewing them as a solution to the country’s ageing population and future labour shortage. Other sectors are also at the vanguard like defence and aeronautics, with its drones. The health sector is also involved with robots now routinely assisting surgery, while the financial services sector uses robotics for the execution of procedures, for compliance and for portfolio management.
Whether it is to increase productivity, reduce the cost of work and increase quality or to limit waste and human error, robotics must help maintain a competitive edge. As robots become more intelligent and sophisticated, their cooperation with men should intensify in the coming years.
CONTINUED GROWTH OF ROBOT SALES
The key role of robotics in “industry 4.0” naturally means a healthy growth in sales of industrial robots: 240,000 units sold in 2015, an 8% year-on-year growth. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the global inventory of operational robots is expected to register a compounded annual growth rate of 12% from 1.5 million operational robots in 2014 to 2.33 million units in 2018. The global market – including software, peripherals and system engineering – was worth USD 32 billion in 20141.
Germany, China, South Korea, the United States and Japan have the strongest demand for robots and represent 70% of total robot sales in 20141. China accounted for 25% of global sales and is the major driver of demand and should remain so for next 3–5 years. China tends indeed to focus on industrial growth and innovation-driven manufacturing to reach the goals of its “Made in China 2025” strategy.
Moreover, China has a highly underpenetrated industrial robotics market with 36 robots per 10,000 employees in 2014, well below the average global robotic density of 66. High robot demand is also expected from North America and Western Europe, due to their increasing need for automation systems.
1 Study World Robotics Industrial Robots 2015, International Federation of Robotics
Jérôme MattHead of Equity SolutionsSociete Generale Private Banking