Has robotics as a technology reached maturity and affordability for smaller manufacturers – it seems yes and no. Years ago future trends in manufacturing frequently imagined completely automated environments and while that hasn’t happened, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2012  identified robotics as one of 11 top cross-cutting technologies important for advanced manufacturing in the U.S. From the first robot in the 1960’s to last November when the first ever robotics stock index was listed on the NASDQ  the industry has clearly matured.
A recent article in Robotics On-line by Tanya M. Anandan  illustrates that robotics is being deployed beyond the traditional automotive domain. In 2013 the electronics sector use of robots grew significantly while use in food processing, beverages, medical devices and pharmaceuticals appear to be growing as well. According to World Robotics  the level of installed and used robots continues to grow considerably with an annual market estimated at about $26 billion in 2012 including software, peripherals and systems engineering.
Robots are now being used more in assembly operations versus historic uses for painting and welding. One example is Dokka Fastners, an MEP client from Michigan who in 2010 installed a highly automated plant to produce fasteners for the North American wind energy market creating 30 high skilled jobs.
In addition new kind of robot—Cobots--are being designed to work with humans in flexible ways for more than a single dedicated purpose. This appears to be a more attractive option for smaller manufacturers. Robots are getting smaller and less expensive, while software improvements are creating self-learning robots. Reducing the need for specialized programming expertise and systems integration will be important and has been a primary barrier to adoption. Smaller manufacturers typically are looking for a 1 – 2 year payback when they purchase robotic equipment.
We spoke with Fred Proctor, Group Leader for Network Controls Systems at NIST who identified costs for a robot alone as relatively affordable, but the time for programming and installing robots can be expensive. He suggested this might be particularly true if a company does a lot of short-run production. However he also mentioned that some newer collaborative robots marketed today are significantly more flexible and may be more attractive to smaller manufacturers.
It appears that while robots on a technical basis have matured, it still may take some time before they are a commodity manufacturing process for smaller manufacturers. However the market continues to evolve and over the next few years we still see that robot-intensive environment imagined many years ago in some smaller manufacturing plants.