Robot Revolution

Investment in robotics has put Germany at the vanguard of industrial automation. From agriculture and construction to healthcare and security, an army of servient machines is being mobilized to streamline industrial production and meet the demands of daily life.

November, 2017

Mention the word “robot” and most people either think of Isaac Asimov’s androids or R2D2, the high-tech wheelie bin from Star Wars. But the public’s perception is out of step with the reality of contemporary robotics, with industrial robots playing an increasing role in streamlining production, speeding up processes and cutting costs.

The global robotics market was valued at a record $35bn (€29.8bn) in 2015, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). The IFR forecasts a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of at least 13 per cent over the next two years (2017-19), with more than 1.4m new industrial robots expected to come online in factories around the world.

The trend toward automated production is not the only driver of growth in the industry. Most of these machines will be used in the manufacture of other machines, such as cars, dishwashers and computers. So as people buy more new gadgets, the market for the industrial robots to build them will continue to grow. Loup Ventures, an American high-tech venture capital company, predicts the market for industrial robots will grow by as much as 150 per cent over the next eight years. In addition, sales of software and services could increase the value of the robotics market threefold.

These underwater robots, a research project from family-owned company Festo in Esslingen, are inspired by jellyfish: they move around with tentacles  and charge themselves at electricy stations.

© Thomas Ernsting/laif

Germany’s expertise

The German robotics and automation (R&A) industry has long been at the vanguard of robotics production, quadrupling its turnover since the mid-1990s and now employing more than 50,000 workers. Germany has around 300 industrial robots per 10,000 employees, far higher than the global average of 69 robots per 10,000 employees. Indeed, Germany has the highest proportion of industrial robots in Europe, and the fourth highest in the world.

Germany’s automotive sector is the leading client for industrial robotics, followed by the electrical and electronics industries. Engineering, plastics and chemicals and the food industries are also major buyers of R&A applications. Although Germany already has a comparatively high number of robots, annual sales are still growing. In 2016, Germany’s Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA) says the country’s R&A industry generated a record turnover of €12.8bn, with an export share of 57 per cent.

Sales to Europe reached 30 per cent of all German exports in this sector, while China accounted for 10 per cent and North America nine per cent. Germany was second only to Japan, with a 14.2 per cent share of the global market worth $639.7m (€544.6bn).

The VDMA divides the robotics sector as a whole into three: robotics itself, integrated assembly solutions – new hardware and components for processes, such as forming and testing – and machine vision (MV) technologies for applications, including data collection, component identification and tracking, and quality control.

Germany is particularly renowned for its machine vision technology. Overall sales grew by nine per cent in 2016, with domestic sales growing by three per cent and exports by 14 per cent. The VDMA forecasts a ten per cent increase in sales this year.