manufacturing robotics

There’s no question that the market for automation in the United States is quickly growing, with the International Federation of Robotics reporting in April that total installations of industrial robots by U.S. manufacturers increased 12% in 2023 to reach record levels. As adoption skyrockets, industry players are finding new and better ways to optimize more applications than ever — from warehousing and logistics to food service and hazardous materials management.  

At Automate 2024 in Chicago May 6–9, industry leaders — Dave DeGraaf, CEO of JR Automation, Gregory Hollows, VP of Product Strategy and New Product Development at Edmund Optics, Jonathan Luse, Industrial Solutions Management Director at Intel, and William Junghoon Ryu, CEO of Doosan Robotics — took to the Automate Theater stage to discuss the state of the automation industry. They discussed the challenges and opportunities the industry is facing, whether in optics, software, robotics, or systems integration.  

Market Dynamics  

The market for automation integration has begun to normalize since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to DeGraaf. It’s common knowledge that COVID-19 significantly contributed to the immense growth in automation installations over the past several years. Now, users who are ready to kick off bigger projects are looking for more flexible solutions that can be modified and deployed across several applications.  

In line with this, although the supply chain is still a challenge for companies, many are optimistic for the future, Luse explained. The pandemic forced organizations to look at their operations in a different way, and this has resulted in new efficiencies and reduced interest in going back to the old ways of doing things.  

The market is also seeing new entrants since the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to increased rates of automation technology adoption. Now, automation companies have new opportunities in application areas that were previously resistant to the technology, Hollows explained.  

Labor is a major driving force for automation, as many markets haven’t been able to find the workers necessary to fill demand. Although this labor gap is a great opportunity for the automation industry, leaders agreed that it requires educating customers. 

But how do we educate potential users? By sharing successful use cases and case studies from around the world. Not only does this educate potential users about the available solutions, but it also can help build trust. This can be important in application areas, such as medical, according to Hollows, who noted healthcare as a major opportunity for automation.  

Ryu highlighted food and beverage as another opportunity area that requires education and trust building to grow the acceptance of automation. He shared one example of a case study from Korea where robots tackled fast-food deep frying.  

Building trust is one thing, but as an industry, automation companies need to also maintain that trust and be a partner with their end users, rather than simply a supplier or integrator. As companies dip their toes into automation to ease labor constraints, providing consultation or staff, like roboticists or controls engineers, can be essential for a positive and lasting experience with automation, DeGraaf noted. 

Where are we going? 

As was evident from a stroll through the show floor, the industry is continuing to move forward. From advanced machine vision and artificial intelligence (AI), to growing interoperability and consolidated data, automation technologies are poised to push output and productivity further than ever before. 

In fact, the productivity potential provided by more sophisticated integrated software and the IT/OT convergence is poised to drive the democratization of automation, according to Luse. 

Additionally, as the industry continues to focus its efforts on increased collaboration among technologies, end users’ experience with and acceptance of automation technology will improve. Hollows highlighted an example of a healthcare facility that had seven systems that could not communicate with one another, making it difficult to optimize the overall operation or integrate any new technologies. 

Finally, you can’t talk about the future of automation technology without mentioning AI. Experts agreed that AI applications can offer return-on-investment, but there’s a lot of room for the technology to grow. Not only does AI itself need to continue advancing, but operators’ understanding of it and how it works also needs to improve. But, with a clear understanding of the technology, AI will be solving more problems when applied in a focused and strategic manner.