Robots and Auto

Industrial robots are part and parcel of the auto industry and will continue to be, regardless of what politicians think.

While I am certainly in favor of jobs—I mean, I’m glad that I have one, and assuming you’re employed (and I can’t imagine why you’d be reading this if you weren’t), you’re happy(ish), too—I find the occasional public discussions related to automation rather amusing, as these discussions are led by people whose familiarity with things like industrial robots and vision systems is probably based on multiple viewings of the Terminator series.

In the auto industry, industrial robots have been tools in the proverbial manufacturing toolbox for decades. And I recall more than 30 years ago talking to people who worked at what was then the Big Three about how their teams were working on the means to make robots “smarter,” whether it was through the use of vision systems or artificial intelligence. This is not exactly new.

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There were more than a few jobs in factories—from diecasting to spot welding—that were, in the parlance of the day, “dirty, dull and dangerous.” These were the sorts of jobs that were repetitive in nature—same, same, same, time after time after time—and so not the sort of thing that an individual would probably like doing were it not for the paycheck.

One could make the argument that the not-so-stellar quality that was once characteristic of many cars from an earlier period was predicated not only on unrealistic line rates (for what was being produced—there were no andon lines to stop things when “issues” arose: “keep making ‘em” was the foreman’s mantra), but on the fact that some of the jobs that were being done by people were better done by machines.

Let’s face it: no one thinks twice about a stamping line forming metal. Metal forming of sheet material can be done by someone with a manual press brake and a set of dies and hammers, yet that notion is rather absurd for anyone who isn’t in their personal garage trying to build a car. Thus, automated stamping: bang, bang, bang, and there’s your bodyside panel.

Industrial robots (and note, I am not talking here about Roombas to vacuum floors or those Jeeves-like novelties that will whip up a mixed drink) are part and parcel of the auto industry and will continue to be, regardless of what politicians think.

The Association for Advancing Automation (A3; a3automate.org)--which has the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), AIA – Advancing Vision + Imaging, and Motion Control & Motor Association (MCMA) under its banner—recently released the 2017 numbers for the North American robotics market (as well as for vision and motion control).

According to its figures, 2017 was a banner year in North America for robots, measured in terms of order units, order revenue, shipment units, and shipment revenue.

According to A3, 34,904 robots were purchased in North America in 2017, a record number.

One finding gave me pause about the $1.9-billion in overall sales: “Automotive shipments were flat in both units and dollars compared to 2016.”

A3 found that there was significant growth in other industries: plastics and rubber (59.6%), metals (53.9%), and food & consumer goods (44.2%).

However, given my bias regarding industries, I checked with A3 to find out about the automotive numbers. I mean, automotive has been a pioneer in industrial robotic deployment and now flat?

It turns out that there are two automotive categories in the RIA numbers: Automotive and Automotive Components.

In 2017, the companies in Automotive had 8,182 robots shipped to them. The Automotive Components cohort had shipments of 21,732 units. Which means in terms of total shipments of industrial robots in 2017, the OEMs accounted for 24 percent and the supply base 40 percent, so that’s 64 percent for automotive with six other categories (one that’s “All Other Industries,” so there is conceivably a whole lot of potential there) accounting for the rest. So even though auto may have been statistically flat, it is still rather robust.

In other words, Automotive still dominates and I’d say that the quality of the cars and trucks that are being produced today derive, in part, from robotics.

Incidentally, as I was looking at robot statistics, I checked out some numbers from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). It has calculated the number of industrial robots installed in countries per 10,000 employees in manufacturing (in 2016).

The number-one country? The Republic of Korea, with 631 industrial robots per 10,000 workers.

As for North America, the U.S. is down the list at number seven, with 189, Canada is further back at 145 and Mexico is at 31. The world average is 74.

Which means that there continues to be a lot of potential for robot installations in North America.