Drives and Controls Magazine
Robots sales likely to stagnate in 2019, after a record 2018
Published:  26 September, 2019

A new record number of 422,000 industrial robots were shipped globally during 2018 – 6% more than the previous year – according to new figures released by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). But the organisation expects shipments to stagnate this year for the first time in many years as a result of the US-China tariff dispute and a downturn in key user industries.

The global market for industrial robots was worth $16.5bn in 2018 – or around $50bn if associated software, peripherals and systems engineering are included. Despite the predicted downturn in 2019, IFR expects the market to resume an average growth rate of 12% per year from 2020 to 2022.

Future growth will be driven, in part, by the adoption of machine learning technologies that will allow robots to learn by trial-and-error and to self-optimise their operations. They will also be able to communicate better with other machines to improve the efficiency of entire processes. Another driving factor, according to the IFR, will be the increased use of new business models such as “robots as a service”.

“We saw a dynamic performance in 2018 with a new sales record, even as the main customers for robots – the automotive and electrical-electronics industry – had a difficult year,” IFR president, Junji Tsuda, reports. “The US-China trade conflict imposes uncertainty to the global economy – customers tend to postpone investments. But it is exciting, that the mark of 400,000 robot installations per year has been passed for the first time. The IFR’s longer-term outlook shows that the ongoing automation trend and continued technical improvements will result in double-digit growth – with an estimate of about 584,000 units in 2022.”

For the first time, the IFR has analysed the global market for collaborative industrial robots (cobots) as part of its annual World Robotics report. It says, that despite strong media coverage of cobots, the number being installed is still tiny, giving them a 3.24% share of the industrial robots market. In 2018, fewer than 14,000 of the more than 422,000 industrial robots installed were cobots. In 2017, around 11,100 cobots were installed, resulting in a 23% increase from 2017 to 2018.

The country with the highest robot density is Singapore, with 831 robots installed per 10,000 people employed in its manufacturing sector. Not far behind is Korea with 774 robots/10,000 people, but there is a dramatic drop to third-placed Germany, which has 338 robots/10,000, followed by Japan on 327.

In 2018, five countries accounted for 74% of the world’s installations of industrial robots: China, Japan, Korea, the US and Germany.

China remains the world’s biggest market with 36% of all installations, but the 154,000 robots it installed during 2018 represent a 1% decline from the previous year. The value of robot installations in China reached $5.4bn in 2018 – 21% more than in 2017.

The IFR points out that, despite the decline, the number of robots installed in China during 2018 exceeded the combined total installed in Europe and the Americas. Chinese robot-makers increased their share of their home market by 5% (up from 22% in 2017 to 27%). This is in line with China´s policy to promote domestic manufacturers. Installations of foreign robot suppliers (including robots made in China by non-Chinese suppliers) fell by 7% from 122,000 in 2017 to around 113,000 in 2018. This reduction was partly a result of China’s weaker automotive industry.

The IFR expects little or no growth in the number of industrial robots sold globally this year. The grey bars (*) represent IFR's forecasts for annual sales in the coming years.Source: World Robotics 2019

In contrast to the decline in China, robot sales in Japan rose by 21% during 2018 to reach a total of about 55,000 – the country’s largest-ever number. The average annual growth rate since 2013 has been 17%. Japan remains the world’s biggest manufacturer of industrial robots, accounting for 52% of the global supply.

Robot sales also had a good year in the US, hitting a new peak of 40,300 machines – 22% more than in 2017 and the eighth annual increase in a row. The US has now overtaken Korea to become the world’s third-largest robot market. Annual robot installations in the Korea fell by 5% during 2018 to about 38,000. Its robot market depends heavily on the electronics sector, which had a tough year. Nevertheless, the number of installations has increased by an average of 12% per year since 2013.

Europe, the world’s second-largest regional market for industrial robots, grew by 14% in 2018 to reach a new peak for the sixth year in a row. Europe’s largest market is Germany (followed by Italy and France ), which is also the world’s fifth largest. In 2018, the number of robots sold in Germany grew by 26% to hit a new record of almost 27,000, driven mainly by the automotive sector.

In terms of end-user markets, the automotive industry remains the world’s largest adopter of industrial robots, accounting for almost 30% of all robots sold in 2018. After a strong 2017 that saw a 21% increase in installations, 2018 witnessed a further 2% increase. Investments in new car production capacities and in modernisation have driven the demand. Most (79%) new robot installations for automotive applications were in five key markets: China (39,351 robots), Japan (17,346), Germany (15,673), the US (15,246) and Korea (11,034). India, the world’s fourth-largest vehicle producer installed just 2,100 industrial robots in its automotive industry during 2018.

In 2017, it looked as though the electrical/electronics industry was about to overtake the automotive industry as the world’s biggest buyer of industrial robots. But, in 2018, global demand for electronic devices and components dropped dramatically. The sector has been hit hard by the US-China trade crisis because Asian countries are the leading manufacturers of electronic products and components. Robot installations in the electrical/electronics industry dropped by 14% from their peak of about 122,000 in 2017, to 105,000 units in 2018.

The third-largest buyer of industrial robots is the metals processing and industrial machinery sector, where the number of installations rose to around 43,500 in 2018 – 1% less than in the record year of 2017.

•  In a second report, the IFR says that sales of professional service robots soared by 61% in 2018 to reach a total of 271,000. The value of the market rose by 32% to $9.2bn. The Federation predicts that the growth will continue, reaching $38bn by 2022 when around a million service robots will be sold. One of the largest and fastest-growing service technologies is AGVs (automatic guided vehicles) with 110,000 being deployed during 2018 – 60% more than in 2017.  The bulk of these (103,000) were deployed in warehouses, logistics centres and hospitals, while 7,700 were in the manufacturing sector. The IFR expects 361,000 service robots to be deployed this year, rising to a million by 2022. The organisation reports that the distinction between industrial and service robots is becoming blurred, with the same machines being able to take on either role, and new applications emerging.