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2021 was the biggest year for industrial robotics, but China dominates

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton October 14, 2022
The latest facts and figures from the International Federation of Robotics highlight which countries are deploying robots and automating quickly and which are falling behind.

Operator checks automated robot in digital manufacturing © PopTika - shutterstock
(© PopTika - shutterstock)

The world industrial robot market experienced stellar growth in 2021. That’s according to full-year figures presented by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) at its annual press conference yesterday. 

Over half a million new units (517,000) were shifted worldwide, representing a year-on-year increase of 31% – the highest figures ever reported by the IFR – and a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11% since 2016. The bumper year brings the world industrial robot population to roughly 3.5 million, said the organization.

Although by far the biggest number of sales, 478,000, were of traditional industrial machines, collaborative robots (cobots) saw year-on-year growth of 50% and 39,000 installations, revealing a trend towards more flexible, programmable devices that can work alongside humans, particularly in smaller factories.

Worldwide, the greatest demand for all types of industrial robot was in the high-tech electronics sector, with 137,000 new machines installed, representing year-on-year growth of 24%. However, the metal and machinery (45%) and automotive (42%) sectors saw even greater growth, with 119,000 and 64,000 robots installed, respectively. Plastics and chemical products (29%) and food manufacturing (18%) also witnessed significant growth.

In the US, however, adoption remains highest in the automotive sector, with 9,782 new robot installations: a year-on-year fall of seven percent. By contrast, demand is up in the US metal and machinery sector (66% year on year to 3,814 installations), plastics and chemicals (30%), and food manufacturing (25%). That said, demand fell year on year in the US high-tech electronics sector by 23%, against the global trend.

Overall, the market grew strongly in all three of the major regions for industrial robot sales: Asia and Australia (381,000 sales and YOY growth of 38%), Europe (84,000 and 24%), and the Americas (51,000 and 31%), with Asian sales driven strongly by automation in China. 

At 268,200 new industrial robot installations, China alone accounts for nearly 52% of all global sales and 51% year-on-year growth, followed by Japan (47,200 installations, nine percent of sales, and YOY growth of 22%). Over the past five years, the CAGR of industrial robot demand in China has hit 23%.

By contrast, the US bought just 35,000 industrial robots, up 14% year on year. South Korea – previously acknowledged as the world’s most highly automated country – installed a further 31,000 (up two percent year on year) and Germany 23,800 (up six percent). 

Of China’s extraordinary progress, Dr Christopher Müller, Director of the IFR Statistical Department, said:

We can see that China has a strong electronics industry, with strong demand: 38% growth in electronics is remarkable. But even more remarkably, the number of robots installed in the Chinese automotive industry has almost doubled at 97% year on year. This is driven by the intent of the Chinese automotive industry to not only increase the share of what they call new energy vehicles, but also other types.

A remarkable year

According to the IFR, several European countries are now seizing the opportunity to automate factories too, with strong growth in demand against the previous year. These include Italy (up 65% year on year), Poland (56%), and France (11%). Elsewhere, Canada (66% growth), Mexico (61%), India (54%) and Thailand (36%) are also automating fast. However, China, Japan, the US, South Korea, and Germany easily dominate the global market, with roughly three quarters of all robot sales between them.

The struggling UK, on which we reported earlier this week, appears to be nowhere in these tables, apparently still trailing a long way behind its key industrial competitors. This is a troubling conundrum for a country whose political focus is on growth and productivity – which robotics would aid.

New IFR President Marina Bill hailed the robotics industry’s global achievements, saying:

It's really been a remarkable year. And for those of you who were here at the press conference last year, my predecessor talked at that time about Covid as an ‘automation booster’. And we can clearly say looking at the figures for this year, that the automation booster has been ignited. It has been a very strong recovery from the pandemic years, with the highest number in history, over half a million units, being installed in 2021.

This growth has been in all geographies, all segments, and all applications. We can see that in six years, the number of installed robots has more or less duplicated [sic], which is, of course, a very remarkable development.

Among the short-term market determinants for industrial robot adoption are companies’ full order books, scarcity of raw materials and intermediate products, continued demand from the electronics sector, increasing political support, and labour scarcity in many developed economies. The latter is exacerbated by ageing populations and ‘the great resignation’ from many industries that followed the COVID-19 pandemic.

Longer-term drivers include low birth rates in many countries, impending retirement for baby-boomer workers, the growing need for elderly care, and what the IFR describes as a “massive labour shortage” looming in the years ahead. All of this promises more years of growth for the robotics industry, it said.

At the same time, the world robot market is “democratizing”, added the IFR. This will mean robots that are easier to use, programme, and redeploy, plus cheaper to buy. There is also a strong trend towards sustainable development and a smaller carbon footprint, with robots that are more energy efficient.

My take

Valuable insights from an organzation that has long had its finger on the pulse of robotic innovation. The message is clear: Asia is automating fast to maintain its status as the world’s low-cost manufacturing venue. Parts of Europe are catching up, and the US – while doing well – is losing ground to China in terms of modernising its factories.

So, what of the UK? It has made so little progress that it was largely absent from the IFR’s 2021 report. For one of the world’s largest economies, newly independent but increasingly divided, that just isn’t good enough – particularly as robotics was one of the central pillars of the 2017 Industrial Strategy.

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