November 21, 2004 Over 600,00 household robots are already in use with several million more expected for domestic consumption in the next few years according to the World Robotics 2004 survey, produced by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), in cooperation with the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).

The World Robotics 2004 survey provides a definitive overview on the state of global robotics usage. Worldwide investment in industrial robots was up 19% in 2003, and orders for robots were up another 18% to the highest level ever recorded in the first half of 2004. The integration of robots into our everyday environment is statistically foreshadowed with the UNECE survey tipping worldwide growth in the period 2004-2007 to grow at an average annual rate of about 7%.


More than 1,200 New Atlas Plus subscribers directly support our journalism, and get access to our premium ad-free site and email newsletter. Join them for just US$19 a year.


Double-digit growth in the robot business

In 2003, the robot market in North America surged by 28%, by close to 25% in Japan and by 4% in the European Union, says Jan Karlsson, responsible for the UNECE/IFR publication. The modest growth in the European Union market should, however, be seen in the light of the fact that with the exception of 1997 and 2001-2002, the European Union has had double-digit market growth since 1994. The robot boom in Japan in the 1980s and early 1990s has dipped since 1998, while robot stocks increased by 7% in Europe and 9% in North America. The Japanese market now shows signs of recovering and the robot density in the Republic of Korea is increasing rapidly.

Number of robots now working in industry

Worldwide at least 800,000 units (possibly the real stock could be well over one million units), of which 350,000 in Japan, close to 250,000 in the European Union and about 112,000 in North America. In Europe, Germany is in the lead with 112,700 units, followed by Italy with 50,000, France with 26,000, Spain with 20,000 and the United Kingdom with 14,000. Despite this disparity between European countries, it is interesting to note that the robot density throughout the European Union is about 50% higher than that of the United States.

A conservative forecast for 2007 points to about one million units worldwide, of which 350,000 in Japan, 326,000 in the European Union and 145,000 in North America.

In the manufacturing industry there are about 320 robots per 10,000 employees in Japan, 148 in Germany, 116 in Italy, 99 in Sweden and between 80 and 50 in Finland, Spain, France, United States, Austria, Benelux and Denmark (the figure for Japan includes all types of robots while for all the other countries only multipurpose industrial robots are included. The figures are therefore not comparable). In the United Kingdom the density amounted to about 40. In the car industry in Japan, Italy and Germany there is more than 1 robot per 10 production workers.

Service robots for professional use

With 4,785 units, underwater systems accounted for 23% of the total number of service robots for professional use installed up to the end of 2003. Thereafter followed cleaning robots with 16%, laboratory robots with 15% and demolition and construction robots with 14%. Medical robots had a share of 12% and mobile robot platforms for general use accounted for 9%. Defense, rescue and security applications had a share of nearly 5% and field robotics, e.g. milking robots and forestry robots, 4%. The value of the stock of professional service robots is estimated at $2.4 billion.

The unit prices for professional service robots differ significantly - from less than $10,000 to more than $300,000, depending on type of application. The most expensive robots are the underwater systems ($300,000), followed by milking robots ($200,000). The average price of a medical robot is about $150,000.

Domestic service robots

Service robots for personal and private use are recorded separately, as their unit value is only a fraction of that of many types of service robots for professional use. They are also produced for a mass market with completely different marketing channels.

So far, service robots for personal and private use are mainly in the areas of domestic (household) robots, which include vacuum cleaning and lawn-mowing robots, and entertainment robots, including toy and hobby robots.. Sales of lawn-mowing robots have started to take off very strongly, with sales in excess of 40,000 units, and should continue to boom. The market potential is very large. Vacuum cleaning robots were introduced on the market at end of 2001. The market expanded rapidly in 2002-2003 and now counts at least 570,000 units.

Of the 610,000 robots for domestic household robots that were in use at end 2003 almost 400,000 were installed in 2003.

The market for entertainment and leisure robots, which includes toy robots, is forecasted at about 2.5 million units, most of which, of course, are very low cost. The sales value is estimated at over $4 billion.

Why invest in robots?

In the last decade the performance of robots has increased enormously while at the same time their prices have been plummeting. A robot sold in 2003 would have cost about a quarter of what a robot with the same performance would have cost in 1990. In the last few years the price decrease of robots has, however, started to level off. Profitability studies have shown that it is not unusual for robots to have a payback period as short as 1-2 years.

And not hire people?

In Germany, for instance, the prices of robots relative to labour costs have fallen from 100 in 1990 to 35 in 2003 and to 15 when taking into account the radically improved performance of robots. In North America, the relative price dropped to 28 and to about 12 if quality improvements are taken into consideration.

"Falling or stable robot prices, increasing labour costs and continuously improved technology are major driving forces which speak for continued massive robot investment in industry", says Jan Karlsson.

Even in developing countries like Brazil, Mexico and China, robot investments are starting to take off at an impressive rate.

"As robots are used both for increasing capacity and for rationalising production, robots investments are made also during periods of economic recession. When the economy recovers, production can then to a large extent be increased without necessarily hiring new labour", concludes Jan Karlsson.

If robots are so profitable why is there not an even stronger rush to invest?

Robots are not products to be acquired "over the counter". In order to reap the benefits of robots, potential user companies must have sufficient in-house technological know-how as well as a thorough comprehension of their production processes.

Medical robots, underwater robots, surveillance robots, demolition robots and many other types of robots for carrying out a multitude of tasks are doing very well. A stock of some 21,000 units was estimated at the end of 2003. In the period 2004-2007, another 54,000 units are projected to be added to the stock.

Results in the first half of 2004 - robot sales continue to surge

Looking at the first half of 2004, the UNECE/IFR quarterly survey on order intake of industrial robots, which includes most of the world's largest companies, showed that worldwide order intake increased by 18%, compared with the same period in 2003. It was the highest order intake of industrial robots ever recorded, worldwide.

In the long run, according to the UNECE survey, service robots will be everyday tools for mankind. They will not only clean our floors, mow our lawns and guard our homes but they will also assist old and handicapped people with sophisticated interactive equipment, carry out surgery, inspect pipes and sites that are hazardous to people, fight fire and bombs and be used in many other applications described in the present issue of World Robotics 2004. Huge military investment in service robots will give spin-off effects both for the market of professional service robots and for the market of consumer products.

The publication World Robotics 2004 - Statistics, Market Analysis, Forecasts, Case Studies and Profitability of Robot Investment is available through the usual United Nations sales agents in various countries or from the United Nations Office at Geneva (see address below), priced at US$150:

View gallery - 8 images