By Jeff Burnstein, RIA President
Just before Thanksgiving I attended the International Federation of Robotics Board Meeting and Suppliers Group Meeting in Tokyo during the big IREX Robotics Show.
The last time the IFR Board met was in March and the mood was somber. Robotics business was very weak at that time and nobody had a clear outlook of what to expect going forward. Very steep declines seemed in the offing for most parts of the world.
This time the mood could best be characterized as “cautiously optimistic.” Yes, robotics business remains down year on year, but there are signs of recovery, especially as third quarter numbers show improvement and “quoting activitiy” is picking up for most companies. The majority of industry leaders now think we’ve seen the worst and that an upturn in robot sales, likely quite modest, is on the horizon. And, strong growth is already being seen in China, where the economic recovery has begun in earnest.
As I toured the show and spoke with industry leaders, several trends emerged. One, the automotive industry, the largest customer for robotics, will remain a significant customer as new car models are introduced into the marketplace. Suppliers to the auto industry will also need to purchase more automation as business ramps up for new model launches.
Two, there are major opportunities in high speed robotic picking applications in food, medical, and other industries. More and more companies are introducing new robots to target these opportunities which could become a strong growth area in the future.
Three, the idea that automation is preferable to sending manufacturing overseas could be taking hold. Following the show RIA Chairman Rich Litt sent me a link to a great profile of a guitar string manufacturer that has automated in order to keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S.
Four, interest in robotics in Japan, the world’s largest robotics user, remains very strong. The show was filled with interesting exhibits and packed with attendees. A strong contingent of exhibitors and attendees were from Korea, another major robotics market, and there also were many visitors from China and other Asian countries looking for robotics solutions.
Five, the amount of research going into service robotics continues to expand. While I didn’t see an immediate “game changer” at the show, there were certainly many interesting developments in terms of humanoids, mobility, and entertainment.
Overall, I came away from my visit to Japan feeling better about the outlook for the robotics industry in 2010. A recovering global economy (especially in China), growing opportunities in food & medical applications as well as other non-automotive industries, optimism about new opportunities in automotive connected to new model launches, and growing corporate awareness that automation is preferable to sending manufacturing overseas.
Though I would never have guessed it in March at the last IFR meeting, from a robotics perspective, there were plenty of reasons to be thankful on Thanksgiving Day!