Robot Use Set Record In 2015
A Closer Look with
Robot orders and shipments in the U.S. set new records last year, with a substantial increase in their use in material handling and spot welding, according
to the Robotics Industries Assn. (RIA), the industry’s trade
A total of 31,464 robots valued at $1.8 billion were
ordered from North American companies during 2015, an
increase of 14 percent in units and 11 percent in dollars
over 2014. Robot shipments also set new records, with
28,049 robots valued at $1.6 billion shipped to North
American customers in 2015. Shipments grew 10 percent
in units and nine percent in dollars over the previous
records set in 2014.
The automotive industry was the primary driver of
growth in 2015, with robot orders increasing 19 percent
year over year. Non-automotive robot orders grew five
percent over 2014. The leading non-automotive industry
in 2015 in terms of order growth was semiconductors and
electronics at 35 percent.
According to Alex Shikany, RIA director of market analysis, the fastest growing applications for robot orders in
North America in 2015 were coating and dispensing (+49
percent), material handling (+ 24 percent), and spot welding (+ 22 percent). RIA estimates that some 260,000 robots
are now at use in North American factories, which is third
to Japan and China in robot use.
The recent record performance by the robotics market
in North America is concurrent with falling unemployment. In January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said that
the unemployment rate in the U.S. reached 4. 9 percent, its
lowest level since February of 2008.
Although some critics say the robotics industry is slashing jobs, others argue that the growth is fueling good
paying jobs, such as robotics engineers. In fact, robotic
engineering has become a popular class at various engineering schools around the country.
“Today there are more opportunities than ever before
in the robotics industry,” said Jeff Burnstein, RIA president.
“The continuing growth in robotics is opening many new
job opportunities for people who can program, install,
run, and maintain robots. In fact, if you look closer at the
jobs discussion, automation is helping to save and create
jobs. A lot of companies tell us they wouldn’t be in busi-
And more companies are entering the field. Kiva Ro-
bots, a Massachusetts firm that was bought by Amazon for
$775 million, is the most well-known. Amazon has some
30,000 robots in use at many of its fulfillment centers,
doubling the number a year earlier. Kiva robots were once
used by many companies, but now only Amazon uses
them in their fulfillment centers.
Still, new robotic companies are emerging as competitors. Tech Insider reported last fall that Locus Robotics
launched a robotics line in its first warehouse in Devens,
MA. The robots transport items that have been picked off
the shelves by humans and bring them to the front of the
warehouse to be packaged and delivered. The company
reportedly has 10 robots in operation that cover about
500,000 square feet and are helping ship some one billion
“We developed a system where the robots do all the
walking,” Locus Robotics CEO Bruce Welty told Tech In-
sider. “As retailers continue to exceed expectation around
next-day shipping, they’re going to look to technology to
help them provide an even faster turn-around.”
The price of industrial robots is dropping substantially.
The cost of the Locus robots is reported (though not
confirmed) to be in the $30,000 to $35,000 range, for
example, but can pay off quickly, Welty said.
In addition to work in the warehouse, robots are
increasingly being used in manufacturing applications as
well as in inventory work. Last year ID reported about a
machine shop in Chicago using 21 robots that place metal
parts into cutting machines and then remove them. Since
then, the company was expected to increase that number
and has freed up employees to work on other projects.
Another manufacturer automated its manufacturing
process with robotics, and as a result, has doubled its number of employees by adding engineers and automated
production specialist to its workforce.
The use of robots will grow as manufacturers and
distributors look for ways to drive productivity, eliminate
error, and reduce costs. That could mean that medium to
large-size distributors will be examining the possibility of
adding robots to their handling and shipping processes.
Jack Keough is contributing editor of Industrial Distribution. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org