November 11 (Reuters) – Companies in North America added a record number of robots during the first nine months of this year as they rushed to speed up assembly lines and struggled to reach human workers.
Factories and other industrial users ordered 29,000 robots, 37% more than in the same period last year, worth $ 1.48 billion, according to data compiled by the industry group Association for Advancing Automation. It surpassed the previous peak set in the same time period in 2017, before the global pandemic boosted economies.
The rush to add robots is part of a larger investment recovery as companies seek to keep up with strong demand, which in some cases has contributed to a shortage of key products. At the same time, many companies have struggled to lure back workers who have been displaced by the pandemic and are looking at robots as an alternative to adding human muscle to their assembly lines.
“Businesses just can’t find the people they need – that’s why they race to automate,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, known as A3.
Robots are also continuing to push into more corners of the economy. Car companies have long bought most industrial robots. But in 2020, total sales to other types of businesses surpassed the car sector for the first time – and that trend continued this year. In the first nine months of the year, car-related orders for robots increased by 20% to 12,544 units, according to A3, while orders from non-car companies increased by 53% to 16,355.
“It’s not that the car industry is slowing down – the car is up,” Burnstein said. But other sectors – from metals to food producers – are growing even faster.
John Newman’s company is one of them. Athena Manufacturing, which operates metal manufacturing for other manufacturers in Austin, Texas, now has seven robots, including four installed this year. It bought its first machine in 2016. Newman said robots have helped Athena respond to an increase in demand, including a 50% jump in orders for parts used by semiconductor equipment manufacturers.
The machines also made it possible for Athena to switch to a 24-hour operation for the first time last year, he said. The company employs 250, but would have struggled, he said, to find workers to fill unpopular night shifts.
Reporting by Timothy Aeppel in New York Editing by Matthew Lewis
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