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Robotic automation has been gaining steam for many years in various sectors and is becoming even more appealing within the current labor shortage as businesses struggle to fill open positions.

As an early adopter of industrial robots, the automotive industry is typically a frontrunner when it comes to placing new orders. But according to a recent report from the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), shifting trends indicate that other sectors are increasingly embracing the benefits robots can provide.

Strongest Year Ever

In North America, 2021 was the “strongest year ever” for robotic sales. That’s according to a recent A3 press release announcing the report, which noted that there were $2 billion in sales last year—a 28% jump over 2020.

“Record robot sales in the fourth quarter of the year — up 9% over Q4 2020 — demonstrated the strong momentum already realized through the previous nine months as more industries look to automation to increase productivity and alleviate ongoing labor shortages,” the statement reads.

The report also highlighted a “continued trend” of non-automotive sectors ordering more robots, representing 58% of the North American total. Compared to 2020, unit sales to non-automotive industries saw the following increases in 2021:

  • Metals: up 91%

  • Food and Consumer Goods: up 29%

  • Semiconductors and Electronics/Photonics: up 2%

  • Plastics and Rubber: up 4%

  • Life Sciences/Pharma/Biomed: up 4%

  • All Other Industries: up 65%

“More industries recognized that robotics could help reverse productivity declines and fill repetitive jobs human workers don’t want. It is no longer a choice whether to deploy robots and automation,” Jeff Burnstein, president of A3, said in the release. “It’s now an absolute imperative. As we’ve long believed—and users continue to confirm—robots help companies compete, ultimately creating more jobs to handle their growth.”

The Synergy of Tech

In its report published in 2021, The Top Trends in Tech, consulting firm McKinsey also cited the rise of robotics, saying it is one of many technologies being combined to create a synergistic effect.

An executive summary of the report describes the dynamics involved: “Unifying and underlying all these trends is the combinatorial effect of massively faster computation, which is propelling new convergences between technologies, startling breakthroughs in health and material sciences, astonishing new product and service functionalities, and an irresistible foundation for the reinvention of companies, markets, industries, and sectors.”

Noting that researchers “prioritized more than 40 individual technologies by technical maturity, industry impact, and momentum,” McKinsey said they then “distilled seven cross-industry and three-industry-specific trends based on prioritized technologies…that could reshape the future of markets and industries in the next few decades.”

Of the seven “industry-agnostic” trends, “next-level process automation” and “process visualization” made number one on the list. The former includes robots, cobots (collaborative robots), and robotic process automation (RPA). The latter includes digital twins and 3-D/4-D printing.

McKinsey predicts that as a result of next-level process automation and virtualization, “50% of today’s work activities could be automated by 2025.”

Noting that the trends identified will “disrupt company strategy, organization, and operations,” the firm describes the disruption created by robots, cobots, RPA and industrial IoT (all within the next-level process automation category) like this: “Self-learning, reconfigurable robots will drive automation of physical processes beyond routine activities to include less predictable ones, leading to fewer people working in these activities and a reconfiguration of the workforce; policy makers will be challenged to address labor displacement, even as organizations will need to rethink the future of work.”

Although all sectors are affected by such tech trends, McKinsey says there are different impacts on different industries. When it comes to next-level process automation, the sectors over which these technologies are predicted to have a major influence are:

  • Mobility sector (Transport and Logistics, Automotive)

  • Industry 4.0 sector (Advanced Industries, Chemicals, Electronics)

  • Enabler sector (Information, Telecommunications)

The healthcare sector (Pharmaceuticals, Health) is expected to be influenced moderately by these technologies.

Exponential Progress

In the executive summary of the report, Peter Diamandis—futurist and cofounder of Singularity University—is quoted as saying “In the next decade, we’ll experience more progress than the last 100 years.”

That quote comes from an interview published in The Guardian in January of 2020 in which he explained his prediction.

“Computation is the foundation. Be it classical or quantum computing, as it becomes faster and cheaper lots of technologies that use it also become more capable,” Diamandis said. “For example, communication networks, sensors, robotics, augmented and virtual reality, blockchain, and AI are all exponentially improving. But they are also being interweaved and converging: for example AI with robotics. And that’s getting even faster because the number of people with access to technology is increasing, so we are able to solve more problems.”

He also addressed the concern some express about robots and artificial intelligence (AI) replacing humans in the workforce.

“Five years ago I was much more worried about our jobs, but the data is showing that we’re recreating more than we’re losing,” he said. “The real opportunity isn’t going to be AI versus humans; it’s going to be AI with humans.”

Optimizing Human Potential

A more recent report from Deloitte also underscored the benefits of automation to free humans to attend to higher-level tasks. In the intro, the editors of the report describe the impact of the pandemic on current trends and offer predictions for a future in which “moving forward will require every one of us.”

Noting the imperative to understand both the “human condition” and “public concerns,” the editors address worries about “the rise of ‘robot overlords’.”

“In truth, our AI-assisted future is not a dark mirror, nor is it a glib panacea,” they write. “Seen from the ground, the reality is that organizations are automating soul-crushingly repetitive tasks, freeing humans to focus on more interesting, higher-value problems. If anything, humans are only becoming more precious to their employers. The battle for talent, especially in tech, has never been fiercer.”

That sentiment is why some employers are investing in their employees to enhance their robotics skills, as described in this video from Mesa Community College.

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