Automakers drive rise in industrial robot outlays

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North American companies, led by automakers, increased spending on industrial robots in the second quarter, even as many businesses remained tight-fisted about other types of investments amid a prolonged trade war with China.

Companies ordered 8,572 robots in the second quarter, a more than 19 percent increase over a year ago, according to the Association for Advancing Automation, an industry group based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Robot sales have grown through much of the economic expansion as the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level in decades and factories continue adding workers — suggesting companies are using robots to augment hard-to-find labor.

When combined with the first quarter, orders for industrial robots this year are up 7.2 percent to 16,448 units. The value of those robots, however, declined 1.3 percent to $869 million from a year ago.

The largest driver of the year-to-date growth was an 83 percent increase in robots ordered by automakers, the trade group said.

“We are currently experiencing the greatest period of robot expansion in history – over 180,000 robots have been shipped to American companies since 2010, and more than 1.2 million new manufacturing jobs have been created during this time,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotic Industry Association.

The average price of robots continues to decline as businesses shift toward buying a new generation of smaller, more flexible machines now coming on the market. The declining cost is one reason more businesses are adopting the technology.

Vickers Engineering Inc, in New Troy, Mich., is one company that has poured money into the machines. The company, which mostly makes auto parts, bought its first robot in 2006, but now has 37.

“Our headcount has ticked up over the last 10 years” from 160 to 190 employees, said Matt Tyler, the company’s CEO and owner.

But the mix of workers today is different, with far more of them doing technical jobs like machine programming and design and fewer workers tasked with simple manual tasks, like loading and unloading machines.

“Our research shows that across the past 22 years, in every period that robot sales went up, unemployment in the U.S. went down. And conversely, when robot sales went down, unemployment went up,” Burnstein said in a study for the Association for Advancing Automation.

The investments are notable at a time when many economists say businesses have become stingier with other spending. Last year’s tax cut was supposed to release a boom of business spending. But after an initial surge, spending has slumped.

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