Industrial Robots: 50 Years and Going Strong

More than 2.3 million industrial robots have been sold around the world since the first installment in 1961, and 2011 was the most successful year yet, according to Shinsuke Sakakibara, president of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), as he and others celebrated 50 years of industrial robotics last week at Automatica in Munich. "And the robotics industry is looking forward to a bright future," he added.

About 165,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide in 2011, 37% more than in 2010 and by far the highest level ever recorded, said Arturo Baroncelli, IFR's vice president. "The impetuous increase of demand in 2010 and 2011 following the worldwide financial and economic crisis exceeded all our expectations," he said. "We expect that in 2012, robot sales will further increase with a more reduced growth rate and again reach a new peak level."

Baroncelli pointed to the return on investments and quality improvements offered by robots. "And this is true both in the car and the general industry; both in emerging countries and in nations having a long industrial tradition," he added.

China, the U.S. and Germany stood out as particular growth countries in 2011, with robot sales growing 39-51% in those locations, and all three reaching new peak levels. Japan and South Korea remain the top markets, however. Japan's industrial robot sales increased 27% in 2011, rising to almost 28,000 industrial robots. Robot sales increased just 9% in the Republic of Korea to 25,500 units.

Almost 22,600 industrial robots were supplied in 2011 to China's market, whose market has been growing the fastest in recent years. China is expected to top the global robot market by 2014.

Key industry trends include continued strong growth in the automotive industry, primarily through continuing modernization and increasing capacities in emerging markets. Increased automation, especially in the metal and machinery industry, also boosted robot sales to other industries. The electrical/electronics industry grew at a slower rate in 2011, but that was coming off an almost tripling of robot installations in 2010.

To read about 50 years of development in industrial robotics—from the development of the first industrial robot in 1959 to the launch of the first humanoid robot in space in 2011—check out the timeline.

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