Robot sales have surged over the last few years as companies in every industry recognize robotics and automation can help them compete globally. While advances in robot technology, ease of use, and new applications remain key drivers in robot adoption, worker shortages in manufacturing, warehousing, and other industries are a significant factor in the current expansion; the most recent data collected by A3 reports nearly 29,000 units valued at $1.48 billion sold between January and September 2021, an increase of 37% over the same period in 2020.

Long before COVID, the manufacturing industry struggled to find and retain employees, especially to fill the “dull, dirty and dangerous” jobs. Unfortunately, the pandemic has compounded the labor shortage for manufacturers and contributed to a sharp increase in job openings throughout most industries. Robots and other forms of automation are saving the day—and we’ve only just begun to see the benefits they can bring.

Advances In AI = Smarter Collaborative Robot Technology

Driven by artificial intelligence (AI) enhancements, we’re seeing smarter robots teaching themselves how to perform previously difficult or impossible tasks in real (or close to real) time. Solutions leveraging advancements in AI across many shapes and forms are already working across multiple industries, helping robotic systems adapt to their work environments, rather than designing every aspect of the environment and processes to suit the limitations of the machines. These advances will enhance productivity, safety and ease of use while leading to more applications involving robotic picking and grasping and even better collaboration between humans and robots. These more collaborative robots are becoming increasingly flexible, more dexterous and overall easier to use, with many requiring no coding so they can be deployed in hours or days without extra engineering resources.

Driven by AI, we’re seeing smarter robots teaching themselves how to perform previously impossible tasks.

Mobile Robots Make Material Handling Flexible

2022 will continue to see a rise in popularity of the autonomous mobile robot (AMRs), with these independent material handling vehicles finding myriad applications across even more industries. Companies wanting to automate repetitive material handling tasks or needing to fulfil rapid e-commerce demands have deployed AMRs in warehouses and factories at a rapid rate. Other industries such as construction, security, and delivery also benefit as they look to move materials, even garbage, or disinfect schools, hospitals and airports.

New Finance Models Make Robots Cost Effective

While robots are becoming smarter, more flexible and easier overall to deploy and use, costs continue to be a concern, especially for small-to-medium size manufacturers. Robotics-as-a-service offerings, known as RaaS, let manufacturers finance their automation without the large initial capital investments that have been a deterrent to many. Some vendors “rent” their own robots, while others partner with multiple vendors to allow manufacturers to deploy best-of-breed industrial, collaborative or autonomous mobile robots. Some charge by the hour and guarantee they only charge when the robot is working.

A growing number of RaaS companies are also taking on the entire deployment and service process, reducing or even eliminating the complexity and time associated with automation along with the financial burden. The RaaS companies can handle vendor selection and project management after initial consultations with the manufacturer on what they would like to automate. Since manufacturers only pay when the system is working, the RaaS companies also ensure the robotic systems are maintained and proactively address any issues to maximize uptime.

These are but a few of the advancements in automation that are saving North American manufacturing as they fill jobs and create new opportunities for workers across multiple fields, from data science, engineering, and computer programming, to robot operators, installers and service technicians. We expect to see even more exciting innovations this year, with many being introduced at Automate 2022 in Detroit (June 6-9).

We look forward to seeing you there!