ANN ARBOR, MI-The numbers are in, and while 2006 won't be remembered as a boom time for robot sales, it may very well be remembered as a watershed for the robotics industry.

First the bad news: According to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), North American robotics companies experienced a steep decline in sales on the year, with a 30 percent drop in units sold and a 22 percent drop in revenue.

However, on the plus side, orders from nonautomotive companies remained steady, increasing from 30 percent of total orders in 2005 to 44 percent of total orders in 2006. For years, analysts have been saying the robotics industry needs to penetrate markets besides the automotive industry if it is truly to become a force in the North American economy. Analysts have also been saying U.S. manufacturing as a whole needs to embrace robotics if it is to remain competitive against low-wage countries like China and India. If 2006 is any indication, it appears this is now happening.

In all, North American robotics companies sold 12,765 robots worth $904.2 million in 2006. When sales to companies outside North America are added in, North American robotics companies' total sales were 13,791 robots valued at $958.4 million. The RIA estimates some 166,000 robots are now at use in U.S. factories, placing the United States second to Japan in overall robot use.

"As expected, the automotive companies and their suppliers slowed their robotics purchases in 2006, following upon their major purchases in 2005," says RIA Executive Vice President, Donald A. Vincent. "However, the most interesting result from 2006 is that nonautomotive orders reached the highest mark since we've been tracking the data this way. We saw very strong growth in industries such as beverages and tobacco, apparel, wood products, paper manufacturing, printing, machinery manufacturing and furniture. We also saw growth in food and consumer goods, life sciences, and plastics and rubber.

According to Vincent, "Our members understand that while the automotive industry has traditionally been and remains the largest customer for robotics, changes are occurring in the auto industry that may negatively impact future robot sales to automotive OEMs and their suppliers.... Therefore, it becomes more important than ever to find new markets, which is what we're seeing happen."