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US robotmakers say '84 was a very good year, or was it?

US-based robot suppliers showed a growth rate of about 50 percent throughout last year, according to statistics released by the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). In the first half of the year, $148-million worth of robots were shipped compared to $194.4 million in all of '83. Unfilled orders of $142.3 million at the end of the second quarter of $'84 could push the industry near the $300-million mark for the year.

"These numbers reflect the fact that American industry is recognizing the need to modernize its manufacturing processes," remarks Walter K Weisel, RIA president and president of Prab Robots Inc, Kalamazoo, MI. "More robots were shipped in '83 and '84 than in the previous 20 years combined, dating back to the development of the technology." He estimates that 13,000 industrial robots currently are installed in the US. Japanese industry is thought to have as many as 30,000 to 60,000 in palce, depending on your information source.

RIA figures show that 3060 robots were shipped in '83, with another 2297 units shipped in the first half of '84. A backlog of 1654 units (worth $142.3 million) existed at the end of the first half of '84.

A rising backlog is a good indicator of the robot industry's strength. Weisel notes that the second-quarter '84 backlog was up almost $100 million from the $43.7-million mark at the beginning of $'83. The backlog reached a $150.1-million peak at the end of '83, dropped to $122.8 million at the end of the first quarter of '84, then rose sharply to $142.3 million in the second quarter.

The same trend is evident in new orders. In the first quarter of '84, 914 units (worth $54.2 million) were ordered. In the second quarter, the mark jumped to 1455 units (worth $86 million). Based on new orders, the average price of a robot is dropping from $74,100 in '83, to $59,200 midway through '84.

The RIA statistics are the first industry-generated numbers ever reported in the US. RIA is providing independent accounting through an outside firm to compile and tabulate the numbers to ensure confidentiality of participants. A spokesman for the accounting firm said that the numbers reflect the input of more than 80 percent of the US industry based on sales.

Doubting Thomas

Vern Estes, manager of product planning and market development for GE's Robotics & Vision Systems Dept labeled last year's performance "not bad in my opinion." He predicts when the final counts is in, 1984 robot sales in the US will be really up just 26 percent.

"A perceived lackluster industry performance has seriously dampened the enthusiasm of venture capital investors," notes Estes. "Although '84 sales were up, I doubt anyone in the business remain elusive this year as well." There presently are some 300 firms worldwide offering robotic systems, up from 50 in 1979.

"Long range success depends on robot vendor ability to produce systems solutions to manufacturing problems, while at the same time making money," he says. "Customers want turnkey systems installed and completely debugged by the vendor, reflecting the fact that most manufacturing firms are finding robotic applications more difficult and costly to implement than originally estimated."

Sharing this view is Peter A Cohen, senior analyst, Computer Integrated Manufacturing Service (CIMS), international Data Corp, Framington, MA. In the firm's report Robotics, Cohen predicts that the domestic market will grow to $700 million by 1989, a significantly lower expectation compared to most other market analysts, the trade press, and robot vendors.

Cohen's conservative forecast is based on his observation that the market is intensely applications-oriented, and thus has a longer than expected implementation cycle. "The business consists of two tiers," he says, "vendors participating in the commodity market for nonintegrated robot arms (a group dominated by the Japanese) and a second tier of vendors building application solutions." Until now, a huge percent of robot sales went to the auto industry, however, Cohen believes that automaker consumption will level by 1989 to about 24 percent.

"Continued growth of robotics in the US is contingent upon application diversification," he adds. "The biggest gains will be assembly, painting and finishing, and arc welding."

World application view

In the public mind, robotics conjures up images of an unpopulated manufacturing plant, with robots doing assembly line work; however, recent research by Dataquest Inc, San Jose, CA, suggests that assembly applications place third in worldwide robotic shipments, behind material handling and welding.

Stephen R Purdy, associate director of the firm's Robotics Industry Service, estimates that 23,269 robots were shipped worlwide in '84. Of those, 7263 will be used for material handling and machine loading, 6463 for welding, and 5193 for assembly.

Purdy also estimates the total worldwide revenue for the 1984 robotics market at $1.1 billion. Of that total, he says, the market for welding will lead with $418 million, material handling and machine loading will place second at $275 million, and assembly will reach $100 million, placing third in revenues as well as in shipments.

The worldwide market will more than triple in the next five years, according to Purdy, with aggregate revenues growing from $1.1 billion in 1984 to $3.4 billion in 1988. Welding should continue as the leading revenue-producing application, growing from $418 million in '84 to $1.1 billion, or almost a third of the total market, by 1988.

Material handling and machine loading will reach $964 million in 1988, up from $275 million last year. Assembly applications, projected by Dataquest to be the highest application in unit shipments by 1988, will be third in revenue, at $594 million--a significant jump from the '84 figure of $100 million.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Mar 1, 1985
Words:949
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