Robots are performing more tasks than ever before, from transporting waste from recycling plants to storing e-commerce warehouses to packing small consumer items into cardboard boxes.
It looks like the number of robots on board will increase in 2022.
North American companies have invested more than $2 billion in nearly 40,000 robots to manage record demand and a pandemic-induced labor shortage in 2021. Since their historic rise in the automotive industry, robots have spread to an increasing number of industries.
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During the pandemic, DCL Logistics in Fremont, California began installing robots on e-commerce fulfillment lines to relieve the pandemic. “With human labor, what they produce depends on how hungry or tired they are,” said Brian Tu, their chief revenue officer.
The robots are fast and don’t take breaks, he claimed.
According to industry group Association for Advancing Automation, known as A3, factories and other industrial users ordered 39,708 robots in 2021, a 28% increase from 2020. The previous annual record for robot orders was established in 2017 – when North American companies ordered 34,904 robots valued at $1.9 billion.
In 2016, automakers bought twice as many robots as all other industries combined. Meanwhile, other companies began to eclipse automakers as buyers of advanced machinery in 2020, and this trend continued in 2021.
A3 reports that the metals and food and consumer goods industries have seen the fastest growth in robot orders.
Another fast-growing sector is e-commerce.
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A3 data primarily reflects the controls of traditional industrial robots – large systems typically replacing entire assembly lines with moving arms. But a growing number of robots are now cobots, designed to work alongside humans on assembly lines.
“The biggest driver of automation is the labor shortage in manufacturing,” said Joe Campbell, senior manager of application development at Universal Robots, a unit of Massachusetts-based Teradyne Inc. in robots.
The pandemic is not the only factor driving change. An estimated 2,000 baby boomers are retiring every day, draining factory expertise.
Campbell said cobots are gaining traction in many industries that have long resisted automation. For example, the company sold robot arms to a company that uses them to install drywall in large construction projects: a notoriously labor-intensive process.
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The use of cobots in automotive factories is also growing. Using Universal’s cobots, Stellantis NV, the Dutch automaker, is building the new Fiat 500 electric vehicle in the final assembly area of its factory in Turin, Italy.
Employers in the United States had 10.9 million job openings in December, down slightly from a record 11.1 million at the start of 2021. According to St. Louis Fed President James Bullard, the rate unemployment in the United States could fall below 3% this year. year for the first time since the 1950s with 1.7 open jobs for every unemployed person.
“Never say never,” Universal Robots’ Campbell said, “but I don’t see anything that’s going to slow us down.”
(With agency contributions)
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