Michael Mahfet is the vice president and general manager of ABB Robotics, North America, which designs and manufactures industrial robots and modular manufacturing systems used in precision metal cutting, metal forming, welding and other metalworking applications.
CURRENT STATE OF BUSINESS
The last two years have been very good for the industrial robot industry and we expect that momentum to continue in 2013. Many people thought the growth that robotic automation experienced in 2011 was the result of pent-up demand that had built up in during the soft years of 2009 and 2010, but the good news is that the solid follow-up year that was experienced in 2012 was the result of real, business driven demand. Two exceptional years in a row clearly represents more than a market correction.
As the economy continues to improve and job growth increases, we are cautiously optimistic that the market for industrial robots will remain strong and that manufacturers will continue to look toward robotic automation to improve their productivity.
The automotive industry has been a big driver of growth over the last few years and while it will continue to be a major factor, in 2013 and beyond robot suppliers must continue to cultivate business in the “general industrial” sectors, the term used for all non-automotive industries.
The welding and metal fabrication industry will continue to be a big growth area. The recent FABTECH 2012 trade show in Las Vegas made it clear that operations of all sizes will be increasing their investment in robotics.
There are two potential caveats to our optimism: The potential that the issues in the Eurozone will bleed into our business in North America, and the uncertainty of the pending fiscal cliff and whether the government’s response (or lack thereof) will harm capital spending. We remain optimistic, however, that robotic automation will be able navigate through the uncertainty without too much stress to the economy.
The biggest advancement we see is the evolution of more user friendly, intuitive, simulation and programming software for industrial robots. The programming of robots is now truly user friendly. Simulation software that started the process now has a complete array of application specific add-ons that take much of the time out of the programming, even on some complex custom applications.
As significant advances in programming simplicity are communicated to the metal fabrication and welding market, smaller shops are beginning to more clearly see the benefit to investing in robotic automation. The point-and-click interface of the new software advancements makes is far easier to accurately and quickly weld small volumes of highly diverse parts. Smaller job shops that make the leap into robotics are gaining a significant competitive advantage over their competitors. More pre-engineered, standard solutions that can be up and running in a day or less are being developed to best serve smaller volume welders.
Another advancement is the emergence of robotic laser cutting as a means to cut and trim hot stamped steel, the light weight, high strength materials increasingly used in the automotive industry to reduce the overall cost and weight of cars while improving both passenger safety and fuel economy. The technology is also increasingly used to cut many hydroformed, electronic and plastic parts in a variety of other industries and should become more prevalent in the near term.
I think the biggest single issue facing the industrial robotic industry is the need to cultivate the key industrial market segments beyond the automotive industry. In total the automotive industry accounts for approximately 65 percent of the North American robotics market. Many large automotive OEMs have completed the retooling of their operations which began several years ago, so the growth in that segment will likely wane to some degree.
On the general industrial side the welding and metal fabrication segment is a large area for growth, as is the food and beverage industry, which has been rapidly adopting robotic technology over the last few years. The biggest aspect of robotic automation strategy to cultivate the general industrial markets is the past and continuing efforts to greatly simplify the programming and operation of industrial robots. This, combined with the introduction of economically attractive robotic systems that can be up and running in a matter of hours rather than days, will be the key to further expansion in the major general industrial sectors.
Our challenge now is to make sure we communicate these advancements to the market in a thorough and compelling manner. The news is very good. As an industry we must make sure we communicate the great benefits of robotic automation on both the macro, mass market level and the micro level, to individual businesses.
ABB Robotics North America, 1250 Brown Road, Auburn Hills, MI 48326, 248-391-9000, www.abb.com/robotics.
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