The demand for service robots is outpacing the growth of industrial robots, says a new study from Freedonia, titled "World Robots to 2016."
The study also found that global demand for robots is growing so fast it's outpacing both the world's overall manufacturing activity and its economy.
That's a mind-boggling claim, but Freedonia expects global demand for robots to rise almost 11 percent per year through 2016. The reasons for this growth rate, and what types of robots are increasing where, depends on the type of machine, whether a country is developed or developing, whether its labor costs are high or low, and the industry or application.
Because of higher labor costs, robots are being used to replace human workers in existing applications in developed countries. But in developing countries, they're more often deployed to carry out difficult and dangerous tasks that people can't do. In those countries, the study found that rising wages mean more human workers will likely be replaced by robots.
Another thing that surprised me was the inclusion of South Korea in the countries that produce the most robots worldwide. Others are more expected: Japan, the US, and Germany. What's not a surprise is the fact that these highly developed countries with well established, sophisticated manufacturing expertise produce most of the sophisticated, high-value industrial robots and medical professional service robots. The smaller, less expensive service robots, and those aimed at consumers, are made mostly in Asian countries with established consumer electronics manufacturing.
Although the production of service robots started ramping up around 2005, industrial robots continue to dominate. These machines are used primarily in the manufacture of motor vehicles -- which is by far the largest segment -- as well as electronics/electrical products and chemicals, including rubber and plastics, and pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Other major application areas are food and beverage manufacturing, industrial machinery, and metal processing.
Industrial robots carry out a number of different functions, mostly material handling and welding/soldering, which are key operations in motor vehicle manufacturing. Other general functions are assembly and disassembly, processing, and dispensing, including painting.
Freedonia predicts that demand for industrial robots will increase steadily in motor vehicle manufacturing, as the industry becomes more automated in China, Thailand, Malaysia, and India. That demand will also continue in developed countries. The fastest gains will occur in electrical/electronic manufacturing, as this industry becomes more automated in the Asia/Pacific region.
By 2021, the study projects, demand for industrial robots will be outweighed by demand for service robots. This will be due to lower costs and more sophisticated robot technology and software, which will broaden their appeal to consumers. In 2011, 73 percent of overall service robot demand was for professional robots, and most service robots will continue to be built for professional applications. The largest category of these will be medical robots, especially in developed countries, followed by milking robots. The single largest product category of personal robots was robot floor cleaners: think Roomba.
The biggest demand for service robots is happening in developed countries and regions, where disposable incomes are high, with the US leading the way. These countries are, of course, also the ones with aging populations, and many medical service robots are aimed at helping to maintain the elderly in their homes. Aside from the US, they include Western Europe and Japan. But China is catching up fast: Demand for service robots there will quadruple through 2016, according to the study.