DETROIT—Propelled by a surge in demand from non-automotive manufacturing sectors, sales of industrial robots in North America set a new record in 2021, totaling $2 billion, a 14 percent increase over the previous high in 2017, according to the Association for Advancing Automation (A3).

Some 39,708 robots were sold in North America last year, a 28 percent over 2020. Record robot sales in the fourth quarter of the year—up 9 percent over the fourth quarter of 2020—demonstrated the strong momentum already realized through the previous nine months, as more industries look to automation to increase productivity and alleviate ongoing labor shortages.

“More industries recognized that robotics could help reverse productivity declines and fill repetitive jobs human workers don’t want,” says Jeff Burnstein, president of A3. “It is no longer a choice whether to deploy robots and automation. It’s now an absolute imperative.”

“Improvements in technology, new financing models and simpler applications continue to be positive trend lines leading into 2022, in particular helping small companies automate and join the global stage,” adds Burnstein.

Orders from non-automotive industries, such as metals producers and food and consumer goods manufacturers, now represent 58 percent of the North American total.

“Hiring technicians and machine operators in the Bay Area is always difficult, and it became even harder during the pandemic,” points out Joe Montano, president and CEO of Delphon, a converting company in Hayward, CA, that recently invested in robots. “Meanwhile, a new generation of rentable robots had made the costs feasible for facilities like ours to make a measured entry into automation. By hiring robots to operate machines for pad printing and component cleaning, we were able to redeploy eight operators to other jobs and see a $70,000 return on investment in less than a year.”