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The Shopfloor Revolution Will Be Automated

How did North American robotics orders follow up 2015’s record first half over the first six months of 2016? With another record.


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How did North American robotics orders follow up 2015’s record first half over the first six months of 2016? With another record.


Actually, the records go all the way back to 2010, according to the Association for Advancing Automation (A3: Ann Arbor, Mich.), which released figures for its member groups—the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), AIA - Advancing Vision + Imaging, and Motion Control & Motor Association (MCMA)—in late August (images courtesy Wittmann Battenfeld).


A3’s reporting members sell into markets outside of plastics, including food processing and automotive (think welding), but conversations with plastics-specific suppliers of automation and robotics also revealed an extremely strong performance in the first two quarters of 2016.


“Basically, everyone I see is looking to automate,” Tom Schaffner, national sales manager for Wittmann Battenfeld’s robotics division told Plastics Technology. “Literally everyone we talk to; they’re either doing it themselves, or they’re asking us to provide a quote and do it for them. We can’t seem to quote enough automation.” Unable to reveal specific figures, Schaffner estimated that the automation/robotics segment at his company is growing anywhere from 10% to 20% per year.


Jim Healy, vice president, sales and marketing, for Sepro America, saw the same year-over-year growth for Sepro as reported by A3. “In the first half, each month’s sales were up compared to the same month in 2015,” Healy said. “July was down somewhat, but activity rebounded in August, and sales were again up compared to 2015. Globally, I understand, the July/August period was among the best in Sepro’s history.”


At the K 2016 press preview held in Dusseldorf at the end of June, Jean-Michel Renaudeau, CEO of Sepro Group, announced that the company is on track for its fourth record sales year in a row, projecting global turnover to exceed €100 million for the first time and that unit sales (robots and sprue pickers) would surpass 2500. Sepro notes this was a conservative estimate, based only on the previous 5 months of sales activity, but it still represents an almost 8% increase over 2015.


Engel, the Schwertberg, Austria based maker of injection molding machines and robot systems via its Viper line, declined to separate out specific automation sales but did says its market share of robot deliveries in North America grew from 20% to 23% in the first half of 2016. The company noted that it has established its own automation center at its regional headquarters in York, Penn. At this time, there are currently 11 automation experts in York that collaborate with the Engel Automation divisions in Austria and Germany, with plans to add more staff in the future.


Headcount expansions have taken place or are coming at Sepro and Wittmann Battenfeld as well. “We’re constantly adding more people,” Schaffner said. “We just added a couple more engineers, and we’re hiring more.” Schaffner said recent hires have included application engineers for quoting, a project manager, and a controls integrator, among others. “The automation department, alone, never mind standard robots, certainly is growing,” Schaffner said.


Sepro noted that an important element in to its North American unit’s recent success is the expansion of its sales network. In 2013, Sepro added dedicated regional managers to handle states in the western U.S. and New England, and it hired a third regional manager in the Southeast in 2015. Earlier this year, Sepro created a new daughter company in Canada.


Another Record Performance
A3 reported that a total of 14,583 robots valued at approximately $817 million were ordered from North American companies during the first half of 2016. That unit figure marks a new record to begin the year—up 2% over the same period in 2015—which held the previous record.


Order revenue, however, decreased slightly (down 3%) in the first half of 2016. Over the first six months of 2015, actual shipments came in at 13,620 robots valued at $838 million to North American customers. In terms of units, those shipments are the second highest total ever, while the shipment revenue figure shipped reflected another new record for the first half of a year.


Automotive OEMs and their component suppliers saw their orders increase 16% and four percent respectively to begin the year, and were the largest driver of the market’s record performance. First half orders for the food and consumer goods industry were up 41% over the same period in 2015, while total orders to all other non-automotive industries decreased 14%.


By application, the biggest increases were realized in inspection (69%), assembly (38%), and spot welding (21%). RIA estimates that some 265,000 robots are now in use at North American factories, which is third to only Japan and China.


Plastics Outlook
At Sepro, Healy noted that on a regional basis, the Southeast has been very busy, with sales there more than quadrupling over 2015. The Pacific Coast is also enjoying “a good year”, with Mexico very active as well. Automotive, which traditionally has been a strong market for Sepro, is going strong again this year. “We’re seeing a lot of orders coming out of the Ohio/Michigan territory for robots that we will deliver to the Southeastern U.S. and also Mexico,” Healy said. “Mexico has been very active, with orders coming through both Sepro America and Sepro Mexico.” The latter is Sepro’s Mexican subsidiary based in Queretaro.


At Wittmann Battenfeld, Schaffner says the company’s growth has been across a variety of markets, naming off specific projects ranging from flat dinner plates and Chinese food containers, to medical devices and automotive. “Years ago, robots were more about trying to justify labor—‘How do we cut out labor?’” Schaffner said. “Now all we hear is, ‘How do we automate?’ It’s not necessarily about labor; it’s about consistency.”


This is not the first time we’ve discussed automation in the blog, read about how China is hoping it can keep it in the manufacturing lead despite a labor shortage using robots, with more reporting on previous record-setting years and collaborative robots as a means to keep humans from having to work on the tedious and/or the unsafe.