In the first nine months of this year, companies in North America added a record number of robots as they rushed to speed up assembly lines and struggled to hire human workers.
According to data compiled by the Association for Advancing Automation, factories and other industrial users ordered 29,000 robots worth $1.48 billion, a 37 percent increase over the same period last year. That was higher than the previous high, which was set in the same time period in 2017, before the global pandemic threw economies into chaos.
The rush to add robots is part of a larger uptick in investment as businesses try to keep up with strong demand, which has resulted in shortages of key goods in some cases.
At the same time, many businesses have struggled to rehire workers who have been displaced by the pandemic, and they see robots as a viable alternative to adding human muscle to their production lines.
“Businesses are racing to automate because they can’t find the people they need,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, or A3.
Robots are also making inroads into more sectors of the economy. The majority of industrial robots have long been purchased by automakers. However, for the first time in 2020, combined sales to other types of businesses surpassed those to the auto sector, and the trend continued this year.
According to A3, auto-related orders for robots increased 20% to 12,544 units in the first nine months of the year, while non-automotive orders increased 53% to 16,355.
“It’s not that the automotive industry is slowing down; it’s actually growing,” said Burnstein. Other industries, such as metals and food manufacturers, are growing even faster.
One of them is John Newman’s firm. Athena Manufacturing, a metal fabrication company in Austin, Texas, now has seven robots, four of which were installed this year. In 2016, it purchased its first machine. Newman claims that robots have aided Athena in meeting increased demand, which includes a 50 percent increase in orders for parts used in semiconductor equipment.