updated 10/21/2003 8:50:00 AM ET 2003-10-21T12:50:00

Increased sales of industrial robots in North America and Europe have revived the global market for the machines, a U.N. report said.

THE ANNUAL WORLD ROBOTICS Survey, released Tuesday, said a 26 percent rise in business orders coincides with an increase in the number of robots used around the home, mostly to mow lawns and vacuum floors.

The 380-page report, issued by the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe and the International Federation of Robotics, said 80,000 robots were sold between January and June. Orders for new factory robots rose 35 percent in North America and 25 percent in Europe — in both cases mostly for use in the auto industry — compensating for the continued decline in Japan.

“These figures indicate that a strong recovery is in sight,” said the study. Amid economic gloom, the global robot market shrunk last year by 12 percent.

The total number of robots in use worldwide stands at around 1.4 million, the study said.

Japan still remains the world’s most robotized economy, home to about half the 770,000 robots working in factories around the world, the study said. But, with the Japanese economy continuing in the doldrums, the number of robots has dropped steadily from a peak of 413,000 in 1997, as companies choose not to replace some aging machines. Last year, the figure was around 350,000.

InsertArt(2047447)“The market is falling in Japan,” the report’s author, Jan Karlsson, told The Associated Press. “There was a tendency at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s to robotize everything that was possible to robotize, and they went too fast.”

But investment is likely to rise in Japan over the next decade, he said, because the country’s falling birth rate means fewer workers will enter the labor force and robots will increasingly be needed to fill the gap. Similar population pressures are likely to increase investment in other rich countries.

While industrial robots continue to dominate, household use of the smart machines is taking off.

In 2002, sales of “domestic robots” — mostly self-piloting lawnmowers and window-cleaners — rose to 33,000. In 2001, the figure was 20,000.

The study predicted booming sales over the next three years. “The market potential is very large,” it said.

Some 400,000 vacuum-cleaning robots will likely be in service by 2006, and 125,000 smart lawnmowers.

Prices for smart vacuum cleaners currently range from $200 for the Roomba made by U.S. firm iRobotics to $1,700 for the Trilobite from Sweden’s Electrolux, which is not currently available in the United States. The robots work by feeling their way around the area they are cleaning, then spinning and continuing in a straight line when they hit an obstacle.

Sales of robot toys — like Sony’s canine AIBO — also are rising, the study said. There are now some 550,000 “entertainment robots” around the world and the figure is expected to reach 1.5 million by 2006.

The vast majority of industrial robots are used on assembly lines. But increasingly, companies are using them for other tasks, the report said.

There are now some 18,600 “service robots,” carrying out tasks from cleaning, handling hazardous waste and even assisting surgeons in operations.

In industry, there are now around 240,000 robots in the European Union, about half in Germany and most of the rest in Italy, France, Britain and Spain.

In North America, the figure is 104,000, but the survey said the region beat Europe as the biggest growth area, with orders rising 35 percent in the first half of the year. The machines also are making inroads in developing countries like Brazil, Mexico and China.

The increases have been fueled by price changes, increased sophistication and reliability, the survey said. Taking the global average, a robot sold in 2002 cost a fifth of what a robot with the same performance cost in 1990, the study found.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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