No one is popping any champagne corks just yet. But based on an encouraging uptick in first half 2003 orders, things may be finally looking up for the U.S. robotics industry.
North American robot manufacturers booked orders for 7,216 robots valued at $465.7 million during this year’s first six months, according to figures released last week by the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based trade group. That’s a 34 percent jump over last year’s first half in terms of units, and a 15 percent gain in dollars, the RIA says.
“It’s kind of a mild strengthening, if you will, and we’re just kind of holding our breath with respect to the second half of the year,” says Kevin Ostby, an RIA board member who is vice president, general industries group, at Fanuc Robotics, Rochester Hills, Mich. The cautiousness stems in part from recent history, says Ostby. “We saw dramatic declines in the 2001 and 2002 time frame that were unparalleled in the industry, and I think it’s just going to take us a little while to get our optimism back.”
The RIA cited strong gains in robots ordered for spot welding and materials handling applications as the leading drivers for this year’s first half growth. While the automotive industry remains the largest customer for robotics, the industry is also making continuing inroads in industries including food and beverage, consumer goods, life sciences and plastics, the RIA says.
Ostby confirms that trend. Fanuc Robotics’ automotive business has declined from about 75 percent of the company's total sales about five years ago to about 60 percent currently, he estimates. About half of the gain in nonautomotive business has come in the food and beverage, and consumer goods industries, says Ostby, with the remainder spread throughout industries including metals, medical implements, plastics and glass.
At Adept Technologies, a San Jose, Calif.-based robotics vendor, Sales Vice President John Dulchinos notes that his company lately has been driving down pricing as one way to extend sales into new application areas. The company recently rolled out a new generation of robot products that feature entry level pricing at about 20 percent to 30 percent less than that of the previous generation, he says.
While Adept has traditionally relied heavily on the electronics and semiconductor industries for a large percentage of its business, sales in both segments dropped off dramatically during 2001 and 2002, says Dulchinos. But 2003 so far is looking better, he observes.
“We saw a reasonably healthy first half of the year, largely because we started to see electronics customers start to buy again, and we also saw some fairly healthy activity out of the consumer products and medical products industries,” says Dulchinos. “So for us, it’s been a combination of a little bit healthier market, and also the result of advances in technology that have made our products more affordable to customers.”