Through the Past Darkly: Is it 2002 Again?


By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR

In May 2002, not long after skyscrapers in New York toppled to the ground, RIA published an article on the times and what to expect. It is eerie how similar those times are to what we have in the spring of 2010.

Below is an account of the aftermath of when the economy had lurched to a stop from terrorist’s plots. Remarkably, as we finally begin to shake off the Great Recession (a.k.a. jobless recovery), the words written by RIA’s Don Vincent ring true as ever.

Editor’s note: The title of this blog borrows from a greatest hits album by a British rock band (The Rolling Stones). I hope you enjoy some good memories. 

The Robotics Industry Begins to Recover

By Donald A. Vincent, Executive Vice President, Robotic Industries Association (ret.)

Let’s face it:  the past two years have been extremely difficult ones for the North American robotics industry. Like all capital equipment suppliers, robot manufacturers have been hammered by the slowdown in the U.S. economy, the aftermath of September 11, and the stock market malaise that has all manufacturing companies watching expenses more closely than ever.

Don Vincent of RIA at a 2002 holiday party; Jeff Burnstein at left

Don Vincent at RIA's 2002 holiday party. (Jeff Burnstein sitting.)

The good news in all of this is that the robotics industry is suffering the same woes as other established technologies such as machine tools and computers. No longer is our industry considered a futuristic technology whose fortunes are tied strictly to the technology’s ability to perform:  Robotics is an established, maturing technology that will do well in good economic times and suffer in tough times. The technology is reliable and proven. Robotics companies are around for the long haul — they can survive the economic downturns and will be ready for the next upturn.

Manufacturing companies in just about every industry recognize that robots can help them improve productivity, speed time to market, improve quality, and lower costs. There are countless “success stories” from companies in automotive, consumer goods, electronics, food & beverage, pharmaceuticals, and many other industries. Small, medium and large companies have all benefited from implementing robotics. 

But, when companies hit rough economic times and are watching their spending closely, they often stop making purchases and try to make do with technology they already have. It’s no different from what individuals do at home. For instance, as summer heats up, a friend of mine told me he wants a new gas grill. The one he would buy will last at least ten years, while the one he’s got is on its last legs. But, because times are a little tougher right now, he’s decided to postpone his purchase and make do with his existing grill for another summer.

Eventually he will buy that grill, just like manufacturing companies will eventually resume purchases of technologies like robots that they know can help them. The pent-up demand for robots will help the industry return to growth at some point soon (hopefully by the time you read this commentary, which was written midway through 2002).

One of the drivers of the next move forward is likely to be the application of robotics to new markets. The use of robots in medical and lab applications continues to grow and holds great promise for the future. Robotic meat processing, bartending, food preparing, bomb disposing – these are some of the innovative applications that exist that haven’t even begun to realize their full commercial promise. And, of course, there’s always the “holy grail” of the useful home robot – it will come to pass at some point, creating a vast new market for robotics technology.

However, in the near term, the greatest growth potential remains in the tried and true factory applications for material handling, welding, assembly, dispensing & coating, material removal and related industrial tasks. These applications can be provided by a wide-range of experienced suppliers who collectively have thousands of success stories to their credit in the 40+ years that robots have been used in factories throughout the world.

RIA is committed to helping potential users better understand how robotics can help their company.

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