The accelerating pace of automation on factory floors saw a double-digit rise in worldwide sales of industrial robots to a record level in 2015.
The surge was driven by companies installing machines not only in advanced countries but also emerging economies, according to research by the International Federation of Robotics.
It found that 248,000 units were sold last year, an increase of 12 per cent, with more than one in every four of those going to China. Once the manual labour “workshop of the world”, the country is today the largest buyer of industrial robots.
Robots have sparked fears that jobs will be destroyed as more processes become automated without the need for human intervention.
However, Per Vegard Nerseth, head of robotics for ABB, the engineering group, said one factor behind their proliferation across the globe was a lack of willing labour for certain tasks.
“People today don’t want to do dull, dirty, dangerous and delicate jobs any more, so many companies see when the older generation of factory workers retire they really struggle to get hold of people who want to take up those jobs,” he said.
Advances in sensors, hydraulics and artificial intelligence are helping to make robots more flexible, precise and autonomous, enabling them to be used in a wider range of manufacturing applications.
This is shown by the arrival of co-robotics, whereby robots are taken out of cages to work safely alongside humans.
Globally, the greatest demand for robots last year came from the automotive industry, accounting for more than one-third of sales, followed by electrical and electronics producers, according to IFR data. The metals industry posted the sharpest growth.
“It’s all about economics. The costs of the systems are falling and the capabilities are rising,” said Hal Sirkin of the Boston Consulting Group. “We have at least 15 to 20 years where robotics will continue to expand”.
However, the rate of growth of robot purchases last year was lower than the 29 per cent posted in 2014, when the global market was valued at $10.7bn.
Sales in China last year increased by 17 per cent to 68,000, as manufacturers turn to technology in response to rising wage demands and competition from other low-cost countries. Although the pace has slowed in China from recent years, there is further growth potential: in 2014, the country had just 36 robots for every 10,000 people employed in the manufacturing sector, compared with 478 in South Korea.
Other countries that clocked up high rates of expansion in industrial robots included Mexico, where unit sales more than doubled to 5,500, while there were also increases in Asia (16 per cent) and Europe (10 per cent).
“The wave of digital transformation and automation will continue to drive the robotics boom forward until 2018”, says Joe Gemma, president of the IFR.