Robots and workplaces
Sheila Pantry OBE
According to the latest Federation of Robotics (IFR) report robot sales in 2016 increased by 16% to 294,312 units, a new peak for the fourth year in a row. The main driver of the growth in 2016 was again – as in 2015 – the electrical/electronics industry (+41%). Robot sales in the automotive industry increased, again as in 2015, at a rather moderate rate (by 6%) after a considerable increase between 2010 and 2014. The automotive industry is still the major customer of industrial robots with a share of 35% of the total supply in 2016. The electrical/electronics industry has been catching up, especially in 2015 and 2016, reaching a share of 31% of the total supply in 2016. The electrical/electronics industry has become the most important customer in almost all major Asian markets, e.g. China, Japan, Republic of Korea.
Between 2011 and 2016, the average robot sales increase was at 12% per year (CAGR). The number of robot installations had never increased so heavily before. Between 2005 and 2008, the average annual number of robots sold was about 115,000 units. 2009 is excluded because of the global economic and financial crisis which caused an exceptional plunge in robot sales that year. In 2010, robot investments which had been restrained in 2009 were the main driver of the significant increase.
Between 2011 and 2016, the average annual supply rose to about 212,000 units. This is an increase of about 84% compared to the average annual supply between 2005 and 2008 and a clear indication of the tremendous rise in demand for industrial robots worldwide.
IFR predicted that by 2019, 2.6 million robots will be working in industry worldwide. This would be almost double the current number. The Federation identified the human-machine interface as one of the most important challenges and in fact as an element crucial to the market. In the long term, the sector will be dominated by builders of robots that not only perform their tasks efficiently, but are also user-friendly, communicative, and act in an agreeable way.
An article in KANBrief 2/17 notes “the use of autonomous technologies draws attention to the relationships between human beings and machines”. There is a considerable amount of information now available on how robots should look and behave in order for cooperation with them and human workers can go forward. In order for human-robot collaborative workplaces to be successful, consideration must be given not only to the objective safety of workers, but also to their subjectively perceived safety.
Directors, research managers, managers need to be watching closely the fast-moving developments in the use of robotics in workplaces of all sizes and the implications for health and safety.
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