Industrial Robotics Global Market Trend and its effect on South Africa


Hermias Hendrikse

*Based on the Presentation with the same title from the Digital Manufacturing track at the ECC 2014 and Digital Factory presentation from SIEMENS’ Future of Manufacturing conference.

Automation is an ever-increasing trend with robotics playing a vital part in facilitating the implementation of processes which were never thought possible. Traditionally the automotive sector has driven the technology as well as adoption, but small-to-medium enterprises are also starting to invest in robotics due to decreasing prices and increased labour issues. Globally, countries like Japan, Germany and the United States are already established in the robotics market with China becoming an increasingly strong competitor. South Africa, being one of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa: which are considered the five major global emerging national economies), is ideally situated to drive the trend up into Africa which is not predominantly industrialised and thus has the most potential for growth from all the continents.

The Statistics

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) performs annual analysis on the trends present in service and industrial robotics. From last year’s report (Figure 1) it can be seen that there is a general positive trend, especially after the 2009 GFC, with an estimated 12% annual increase into the near-future. It should be noted that is seems that countries only realised the significant value of acquiring industrial robots after 2009 when compared to the preceding years. This suggests that the long-term value of automation was realised when compared to the perceived high cost of implementation.

Figure 1 IFR Robotics Trend
Figure 1: IFR Robotics Trend

The figure below illustrates how the Automotive industry is still utilising the most robots but also that many other industries are already implementing automation. It should be noted that over-all, all industries’ use of robotics have been increasing over the past few years and are thus expected to keep increasing. This further emphasises the point on robotics infiltrating into industries where they were never used traditionally but are now able to be used with the latest technological advancements.

Figure 2: IFR Annual Supply of Robots

The following figure shows that Asia has been increasing at a significantly faster rate when compared with Europe and America. China and Japan are the two countries affecting this trend which implies that the rest of the BRICS countries could follow suit. The following quote explains very clearly why this is happening: “Chinese labour costs are rising 20% a year, while robotic costs are dropping by 30% a year.”[1]

[1] Rich Karlgaard, Publisher of Forbes, May 16 2012.


Figure 3
Figure 3: IFR Continental Trend

Africa is not really even featured in the IFR statistics when compared to the rest of the world which implies two things. Firstly, Africa is far behind the rest of the world when considering robotics being used in industry, but, secondly, Africa thus also has the most potential for growth. Economist Charles Robertson recently held a TED™ Talk titled “Africa’s next Boom” where he discusses the certain economic and socioeconomic factors driving the imminent “Boom” of economic growth into Africa. With Chinese labour costs increasing many companies are considering moving production to Africa which will, in the short term, save them money. However, if Africa follows in China’s footsteps which is practically inevitable, the labour costs will also rise in Africa and automation will eventually become the most logical choice for a variety of reasons.

Current Trends

If we consider some immediate trends, emerging economies would need robotics and automation for their developing automotive and aerospace markets. What is also expected to happen is the adoption of robotics in small and medium enterprises (SME’s) due to the increasing versatility of applications as well as attractive cost models[1].

Some general trends in industry include increasing ease of use, deployment and maintenance. In the deployment or commissioning phase, technology like virtual commissioning wherein the robot simulation can be paired and tested with actual hardware like PLC and safety curtains has brought down commission time from two weeks to six hours in certain cases. Another trend is the increasing levels of Human-Robot collaboration where the worker is required to perform a high-skilled, intricate task and the robot aids with basic tasks like an assistant. These new ways of working with robots has expanded where remote access has become a regular sight due to increased connectivity. This has led to the development of “Robotic “Surgery”[2] which is basically very small tools attached to a robotic arm. The arm needs to be controlled by a qualified surgeon and with the remote access it is theoretically possible for a surgeon to perform the operation on a patient that could literally be half-way around the world.

Industrial robots themselves have also been improving in recent years with the development of new “senses” which allow the robot to make decisions. Theses senses include visual/laser tracking, force-feedback and in some cases even sound. Leveraging this technology is enabling the use of robots in fields never imagined.  The “smart” robot now makes sense to use for delicate applications and with the ever-decreasing cost the ROI of implementing a robotic system keeps improving.

The Future State

There have been many articles stating the potential for tasks that require skilled personal to be replaced with partial or full automation[3].  By the year 2030 it is expected that robotics could eliminate human labour completely in certain applications. By this time it is expected that a certain level of integration of industrial and service robots could occur eliminating the need for menial jobs that require a worker. It is also expected that total automation could be more cost effective than outsourcing to developing countries or using large levels of labour[4].

Looking at these possibilities it seems that using manual labour and the issues associated with it can be avoided through the use of robotics. After-all, robots never complain, they work more consistently, more accurately and faster than a manual worker. The next question however then becomes; but what about all those people losing their jobs? A Robot can perform a relatively simple task and thus replace the worker performing the task but, and this is important, additional people will be required to maintain, program and work in conjunction with the machinery. A recent article stated: “Designing, building, marketing, selling, installing, operating and maintaining robots creates jobs that didn’t exist before robots. The jobs this “robot ecosystem” creates are typically high paying, rewarding and come with good levels of benefits.[5]

If companies adopt the notion of up-skilling their workers to be able to perform higher-skilled functions it could lead to better income as well as job satisfaction for those employees who would have been simply replaced. This “Robotic Eco-System” could thus replace a simple task with a better system regarding all accompanying factors. Yes, it is easier to simply replace the current worker and hire someone with the required skill-set, so in this regard companies will need to aim towards improving the occupations of their current employees by committing to invest in them.

[1] CIMdata 2013

[2] MedlinePlus: Robotic surgery

[3] Skilled Work, Without the Worker, John Markoff, The New York Times, Aug 19 2012

[4] Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds

[5] Robotics Tomorrow: Top Six Trends in Industrial Robotics, Nick Chambers