September is always an important month for the robotics sector as the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) publishes the annual report on the world trends of the sector, to which the various national robotics associations contribute. In Italy it is SIRI, which is part of IFR, and, as such, it is its task to publicize the results contained in the World Robotics Report, which for 2018 shows a global annual sales value of 16.5 billion USD – a new record.
by Fabrizio Garnero
In 2018, 422,000 units were shipped worldwide, an increase of 6% compared to the previous year. The IFR forecasts that shipments in 2019 will not reach the record level of 2018, but an average annual growth of 12% is expected from 2020 to 2022.
“We saw a dynamic performance in 2018 with a new sales record, although the main customers of robotics – the automotive and electrics-electronics industries – had a difficult year,” says Junji Tsuda, President of the International Robotics Federation. “The US-China trade conflict brings uncertainty on the global economy – customers tend to postpone investments. But it is exciting that the target of 400,000 robot installations per year has been exceeded for the first time. The long-term prospects of the IFR show that the ongoing automation trend and continuous technical improvements will lead to double-digit growth – with an estimate of about 584,000 units in 2022”.
An overview of Europe, Asia and the Americas
Asia is the world’s largest market for industrial robots. In 2018, there was a mixed picture for the three major Asian markets: installations in China and the Republic of Korea decreased, while Japan increased considerably. In total, Asia has grown by 1%. Robot installations in the second largest market, Europe, increased by 14% and reached a new peak for the sixth year running. In the Americas, the growth rate was 20% higher than the previous year and marks a new record for the sixth year running.
The top five markets in the world
Five important industrial robot markets account for 74% of global installations in 2018: China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the United States and Germany.
China remains the world’s largest industrial robot market, with a 36% share of total installations. In 2018, around 154,000 units were installed. This is 1% less than the previous year, but more than the number of robots installed in Europe and the Americas together. The value of the installations has reached 5.4 billion USD – 21% more than 2017.
Chinese robot suppliers have increased their share of total installations on the domestic market by 5 percentage points (27% in 2018 against 22% in 2017). This result is in line with the Chinese policy of promoting national producers. Conversely, the installations of foreign robot suppliers (including units produced in China by non-Chinese suppliers) decreased by 7% to around 113,000 units (2017: around 122,000 units). This reduction is also caused by a weakening of the automotive industry.
Robot sales in Japan have increased by 21% to around 55,000 units, which is the highest value ever for the country. The average annual growth rate of 17% since 2013 is significant for a market with an already highly automated industrial production. Japan is the world’s leading manufacturer of industrial robots and has delivered 52% of the global offer in 2018.
Robot installations in the United States have increased for the eighth year running and reached a new peak in 2018 with around 40,300 units. This is 22% more than 2017. Since 2010, the driver of growth in all manufacturing industries in the United States has been the continuous trend to automate production in order to strengthen US industries both on the domestic and global markets. As for the annual installations, the country reached the third place which was previously held by the Republic of Korea.
Annual robot installations in the Republic of Korea fell by 5% – about 38,000 units were sold in 2018. The robot market depends heavily on the electronics industry which had a difficult year. However, the installations have increased on average by 12% per year since 2013.
Germany is the fifth world market for robots and the first in Europe, followed by Italy and France. In 2018, the number of robots sold increased by 26%, reaching almost 27,000 units – a new all-time record. The installations are mainly lead by the automotive industry.
Robots in industry around the world
The automotive industry remains the world’s largest user of robots, with a share of almost 30% of the total offer (2018). After a strong 2017 that showed a 21% increase in installations, this level was maintained and slightly increased by 2% in 2018. Investments in new production capacity and modernization have driven the demand for robots. The use of new materials, the development of energy-efficient propulsion systems and the strong competition in all the main automotive markets have pushed for investments. 79% of industrial robot installations took place in five key markets: China (39,351 units), Japan (17,346 units), Germany (15,673 units), the United States (15,246 units) and the Republic of Korea (11,034 units). It is interesting to note that India, the world’s fourth largest manufacturer of vehicles according to OICA production statistics, had just 2,100 industrial robots installed in its automotive industry.
The electrics / electronics industry was about to replace the automotive industry as the most important customer for industrial robots in 2017. However, in 2018 the global demand for electronic devices and components has significantly decreased. This sector of customers is probably the most affected by the US-China commercial crisis, as Asian countries are leaders in the production of electronic products and components. The robot installations in this sector have decreased by 14%, going from the maximum level of around 122,000 units in 2017 to 105,000 units in 2018. 79% of total installations in the electrics / electronics sector have been installed in three countries with an important production site: China (43%), Republic of Korea (19%), Japan (17%). Vietnam saw a single increase in plants in 2017, driven by some large projects (7,080 units), but decreased in 2018 (689 units).
The metals and machinery industry has established itself as the third largest customer industry. Installations accounted for 10% of total demand in 2018. Both manufacturers of metal products (without spare parts for automobiles) and manufacturers of industrial machinery have purchased large quantities of robots in recent years. Installations rose to around 43,500 units in 2018. This is 1% less than the 2017 record (44,191 units). The metals and machinery industry was the largest customer industry in Finland (44%), Sweden (42%), Switzerland (40%), Belgium (30%), Austria (27%), Italy (26%), and Denmark (21%).
In 2018, Italy’s growth was higher than Germany’s
As mentioned above, 2018 was a positive year for world robotics. This is not so obvious after a record year such as 2017. A widespread euphoria that pushed Italy to achieve an even better result than important countries such as Germany, said Domenico Appendino, President of SIRI, whom we met during the inauguration of the new Roboteco-Italargon plant in Genoa Bolzaneto. We asked him to comment precisely on the Italian situation in the light of the IFR data.
“We leave behind a 2018 with an extremely positive result for the world of robotics, even exceeding our expectations,” said Mr Appendino. “The 2018 IFR data we received these days with the publication of the World Robotics report show 9,847 units marketed in Italy. This corresponds to an increase of 27% compared to 2017. This substantially confirm us as the second European market after Germany for robots sales. Moreover, this result makes us climb the world sales ranking, from the eighth to the seventh place”.
“In 2018, Italy, even after a record-breaking 2017, showed a consumption value that is 4.5 times the world average (6% according to IFR), twice the average of Europe and North America (both at 14%) and twenty-seven times Asia’s average, which grew by 1% during the year. I would therefore say that we can safely speak of a very interesting and extremely satisfying result for all the operators in the sector “, commented Mr Appendino.
“Going deeper into the European situation, Italy’s growth in 2018 was higher than Germany’s, which stopped at 26%. Certainly, it is only one percentage point, but it is rather significant if we consider the average annual growth of the last five years, which shows that, mainly thanks to the last three years, our country’s growth was twice (16%) as Germany’s (8%)”.
Asia tips the scale
To sum up, Italy ranks seventh in the world for robot consumption, from tenth to ninth in terms of robot density per employee at world level and fourth in Europe. 2018 was therefore a positive year for Italian robotics, despite it must be said that this result was favored by the low growth of Asia, which in the recent past – with its high growth rates – had made us go down in the world rankings.
“With Asia slowing down, we have regained the role that historically belongs to us”, says Mr Appendino, who then continues: Well done! This result rewards an extremely innovative sector that in our country involves not only robot manufacturers but also – above all – the numerous Italian integrators, so much appreciated both by the domestic and foreign markets; which is the reason why, for Italy, we talk about robots marketed and not robots installed.
Of course, it is very likely that this is a temporary situation. As soon as Asia awakens, our ranking will surely change. Suffice it to say that only China represents 36% of world robot consumption, while Italy is 2.3%. This makes it clear that the 2018 result is quite unique; the fact remains that it is still a very positive result for the Italian sector”.
The second semester is not easy, but then we immediately smile again
“A more indicative comparison is with Germany, which we have doubled in terms of growth in the last five years,” says Mr Appendino. “We hope that this result can gradually become structural even if, to be honest, the half-yearly data processed by the UCIMU Study Center and by the SIRI Statistics Work Group speak of a general sentiment that does not turn to optimism. In fact, the data collected from the sample of 11 companies responding to the survey for the first six months of 2019 speak of stability. This, at best, would mean maintaining the level reached last year with such high growth. After three years of continuous growth we are going through a phase of stagnation that does not surprise us, because a slowdown was expected after the past positive years. It is also happening to the Italian machine tool sector, so it is no wonder that such a phenomenon can also affect robots, which are growing by just over 2%. However, compared to the first half of 2018, there is an important difference: the automotive sector, at least for this year, seems to be the back as the leading sector, replacing the General Industry, thanks to some investments made by FCA in electric vehicles”.
The feeling around the SIRI Working Group table unfortunately speak of a difficult second half of 2019, in the name of immobility. Of course, it is not a comforting situation but, at the same time, it does not give rise to particular concerns, being in line with a world economic situation that has to deal with some rather complicated issues such as US duties, the struggle with China, an automotive sector with few clear ideas and Germany’s economic situation, which is the most affected by the current macroeconomic senario.
It is no mystery that in the IFR’s World Robotics report, 2019 forecasts show a minus sign, but in 2020 it should be positive again with annual growth rates of 12% until 2022.
Italy is therefore in line with the other areas of the world, compared to some of which it can still boast a positive sign of around 2%, referring to our statistical sample which, although partial, is extremely significant and relevant.
Automotive characterizes the Italian market
Let’s take a closer look at the Italian situation thanks to the data processed by the UCIMU Study Center on the recommendation of the SIRI Statistics Working Group. These data show a growth of 2.5% (4,274 units) in the first six months of the year compared to the same period in 2018, when 4,170 robots were sold. In particular, it is clear what was said by the President of SIRI: the automotive sector has become a protagonist again thanks to more important growth rates than the General Industry. The latter, despite boasting a larger number of robots – 626 units sold directly by the manufacturers and 2,628 units sold through third parties – grew only by 11% in the first case and decrease of -7.2% in the second. On the other hand, the automotive sector grew by 184.7% (168 units) as for robots sold by robot manufacturers to the automotive sector and 65% (467 units) in the case of robots sold to the so-called Tier1 / Tier2; -10.7% with only 385 robots sold is the result of the activities carried out by system integrators with the automotive sector. A picture that clearly outlines how the investments made by FCA to produce some models of electric cars have characterized these first six months of the current year in which robot manufacturers – with 1,261 units sold – registered a more lively growth (+39.2%) compared to integrators, which despite 3,013 robots sold, decreased of -7.7% compared to the same period of 2018.
This is confirmed also by the analysis of data in the application aspect: it appears clear that robotic welding – historically linked to the production of cars – is again the protagonist: 314 robots for arc welding were sold (29.2% ), in particular 290 for spot welding, with a growth rate of 302.8%. The result achieved by robots for machine tool interlocking is also important, with an increase of 26.9% and 609 units sold. The number of robots for the deburring process is in line, with a growth of 19.3% and 130 units sold. Material handling is confirmed as the application with the highest number
of robots sold: 1,867; nevertheless, it recorded a decrease of -7.8%. In 2018, 2,024 robots were sold for this type of process.