Large U.S. manufacturers plan to increase investment in robotics systems in 2015, a fact highlighted in a 31-page report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The survey came out a few days ahead of a conference in Arkansas that touted the future of robotics for manufacturers in the state.
Researchers questioned senior executives at 58 U.S. manufacturers that average 8,265 employees per firm and $3.17 billion in revenue. Telephone surveys indicated as many as 58 percent of these companies plan to invest in robotics systems in the next two to three years. Nearly half, or 48 percent, of the executives surveyed indicated their firms are already heavily involved or moderately involved in robotics. Up to 79 percent already use this type of automation in some form.
The major barrier to investment remains a high price for robotics systems. As many as 69 percent of executives want the price on such machinery to drop significantly before companies spend more money on automation. Quality of these systems doesn't present an issue. Firms recognize the current climate of the industry limits returns on investment due to very high prices. Approximately 52 percent of respondents don't feel robots figure into profits over the next two to three years.
Companies want these robots to perform assembly work, high-speed work with consistency, materials handling, visual sensing and machining tasks that require high levels of manual dexterity. Speed and efficiency combine to replace slower humans that tire after doing such rapid work.
These robotics systems eventually replace workers on the plant floor. Manufacturers save money in labor costs, but companies must hire more technicians and engineers that run the automated systems. Reducing human employees obviates the need for health insurance, downtime, vacation days and lost productivity due to sickness.
What does this all mean? Businesses that specialize in creating robotics systems must lower their prices. As more companies that can afford such machines invest more in these companies, prices come down eventually as demand increases. Tech companies should also earn investment capital from federal government grants for technology, startup funding sources and venture capitalists that have an interest in these types of companies. Just as cellphones started as luxury items only the rich could afford, robots in factories should eventually come down in price until they become ubiquitous among manufacturers.
Independent investors recognize the importance of robots to the future of manufacturing. In 2014, more venture capital went towards companies that create these systems than ever before. Collaborative robots, in particular, earned $26 million in overall investments to demonstrate how human-like machines can help in production lines at any given time. Instead of downtime to replace one automated piece of machinery with another, collaborative robots work alongside humans in any capacity at any time on the assembly line.
Robotics systems may gradually replace more lower-skilled laborers on plant floors. However, the process could take decades before factories become mostly automated. In the meantime, instead of laborers on the manufacturing floor, an increase in engineers might infiltrate the industry as robots become more prevalent.
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