Historically, the automotive industry has accounted for the vast majority of robotics purchases worldwide. However, following a very strong year in 2005, new robot orders from automakers and their suppliers are making up a smaller percentage of overall sales than ever before--and that's a good thing.

For years, proponents of the robotics industry have been saying robots need to become a part of manufacturing in general, not just the automotive sector. Now that seems to be happening.

For example, in the first quarter of 2006, sales to U.S. automakers and their suppliers fell by more than a third compared to the same period in 2005. Nonetheless, nonautomotive sales held steady, increasing their slice of the pie to 40 percent. Similarly, in 2005, sales to European automakers fell by nearly a tenth, while nonautomotive orders increased 17 percent.

In Asia, orders for industrial robots are still coming predominantly from automobile makers and their suppliers. But, in Japan--the longtime global leader in terms of robotics--robots are increasingly being used by the electronics and communications industries. In Korea, robots are playing a larger and larger role in palletizing, packaging and flat-panel display manufacture.

Jeff Burnstein, vice president of marketing at the Robotic Industries Association (RIA, Ann Arbor, MI) cautions not to read too much into the recent numbers, noting that the latest increases are largely relative. But, he says he does believe the growing use of robots in nonautomotive applications is a long-term trend.

RIA Executive Vice President, Don Vincent, agrees. "For the robotics industry to reach its full potential, we know that growth is needed in the nonautomotive sectors as well as in automotive, so the increased share for nonautomotive orders can be viewed as a positive sign," Vincent says.

Growing Nonautomotive Appeal

According to Burnstein, there are a number of reasons why nonautomotive manufacturers are adopting robots as part of their business. For one thing, prices are coming down, to the point where a robotics system is affordable for smaller businesses. For another, robot manufacturers are becoming more aggressive and creative in finding ways to exploit new markets.

Perhaps most important, as the number of successful nonautomotive installations increases, nonautomotive manufacturers are becoming more comfortable with the idea of incorporating robots into their businesses.

"Companies trying to compete globally are looking for an edge," Burnstein says. "This is a trend I think you're going to see continue, because it feeds on itself. As you see more successes, you're going to see more applications."

Burnstein notes that while there may be a trend toward nonautomotive applications, that doesn't mean the disappearance of those larger robots generally associated with the auto industry.

Granted, in, say, the medical equipment industry, you're more likely to use a small Cartesian or six-axis machine. But, there is still plenty of heavy lifting to do in packaging and material-removal applications. "You're not just talking about lots of SCARAs," Burnstein says.

Ultimately, given the intensely competitive nature of today's business market, robot manufacturers may have no choice but to diversify if they want to survive. "With the slump in demand from automotive OEMs, increasing numbers of robotics manufacturers will look to the food and beverage, and life sciences sector for growth opportunities," says Kashyap Chandrasekar, an analyst for Frost & Sullivan (Palo Alto, CA). "Intense competition and price pressures from OEMs and the slump in demand are making a niche automotive approach highly unfavorable." In the end, according to Chandrasekar, for most robot makers "widening their end-user spectrum," especially with regard to small- and medium-size businesses, will not only be profitable, but a necessity.