ANN ARBOR, MI-The North American robotics industry had its best opening quarter ever, with new robot orders up 30 percent, according to statistics released by Robotic Industries Association (RIA).

A total of 5,316 robots worth $302.5 million were ordered by North American manufacturing companies in the January-March period. An additional 272 robots, valued at $18 million, were ordered by companies outside North America.

"It was an outstanding quarter, one of the best since we started tracking robot sales in 1983," says RIA executive vice president Donald A. Vincent.

Material handling, the most common robotics application, posted a 67 percent gain over first quarter results for 2004. Arc welding applications jumped 76 percent, and coating and dispensing orders rose 49 percent.

Automotive manufacturers and suppliers accounted for about 70 percent of the orders in the first quarter. In nonautomotive sectors, there was strong growth in primary metals industries, and food and consumer goods.

"The strong first quarter results [continue] the double-digit gains of the past 2 years," Vincent says. "If economic conditions remain healthy, we expect 2005 to be a very good year."

RIA estimates that some 147,000 robots are now in use in factories in the United States. But Vincent emphasizes there is plenty of room for continued growth, especially among small- and medium-sized companies that have yet to incorporate robotics into their manufacturing processes.

"Though robots have been used in the United States for over 40 years, we have still only scraped the surface of potential applications. Each day, as awareness of robotics benefits spreads, new companies are taking a close look at robots to see if they make sense for their company," he says.