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Grounds for optimism after a turbulent two years

Maya Xiao, research analyst, Interact Analysis China gives an insight to their Collaborative Robot Market 2021–28 report

In its latest report on the collaborative robot market, Interact Analysis has revised downwards the growth predictions made in our 2019 report. The main factor behind this downward revision is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are other downward drivers, such as competition from small articulated and SCARA robots in industrial settings, and a slower than expected increase in collaborative robot (cobot) installations in non-industrial settings. Nevertheless, this report gives good grounds for optimism for the short to medium term in the collaborative robot sector.

V-shaped rebound and sustained growth predicted

The cobot market weathered a difficult 2019 due to a slow-down in the global economy that affected the important Asian market the most, and a tumultuous 2020, when the market saw negative growth for the first time, -11.3 per cent in revenue terms, and -5.7 per cent in shipment terms. Factory and warehouse shutdowns slowed demand and customers exercised caution with investment, leading to delays and cancellations of orders. However, Interact Analysis’s in-depth research has found chinks of light for the sector.  The company predicts that there will be a V-shaped rebound for the industry which will result in growth of nearly 20 per cent in 2021, surpassing the 2019 market size. Thereafter up to 2028 there will be an annual growth rate in the order of 15-20 per cent. Not as high as previously predicted, but healthy, nonetheless.

A concept in evolution

It has not been long since the birth of cobots, and the concept of collaboration alone does not necessarily attract investors. But in a short space of time, they have evolved from being a conceptual product to being a strategic one. Suppliers have gradually moved from simply selling the concepts of collaboration or safety to marketing specific landing solutions in different application scenarios and service areas. For instance, in the field of industrial manufacturing, with the application of high-precision sensors, machine vision, end arm tools and safety control (alarm) software, flexible production and cooperation between human and robot can be realised. Moving forward, there is the potential to partially replace or assist manual work in the processes of picking, placing, loading, and unloading, palletising, packaging, quality inspection and other operations.

Market forecast: flexibility and innovation are the main drivers

In terms of market growth, cobots have been trailblazers in the robotics industry. In 2019, global cobot revenues totalled $669.9 million, a 15.6 per cent increase on 2018; 22,459 cobots were shipped, up 18.8 per cent year-on-year, pretty good going in the context of a sharp decline in the overall market for robots.

Notwithstanding the sucker-punch the collaborative robot market took in 2020, the potential market size is still large; the key to further growth lies in infiltrating new application scenarios (both manufacturing and non-manufacturing applications) and in technological breakthroughs. The industry is up and running in these respects. Interact Analysis forecasts that annual cobot revenues will reach $1.94 billion in 2028, accounting for 15.7 per cent of the total robot market.

Flexibility and ease of use are the main competitive advantages of cobots in industrial applications. Although most of the new products released in the last 18 months are in the payload range of 0-9 kg, many companies have produced cobots with larger payloads. The main barrier for larger payload cobots is that the speed of operation must be reduced to enable safe functioning around humans. Additional sensors, software algorithms and peripherals can be added to improve the speed and safety of these larger robots, but this comes at a higher overall cost. Interact Analysis predicts that <5 kg and 5-9 kg cobots will still account for most sales in 2024, with a total of 80.3 per cent revenue share and 85.1 per cent shipment share. In industrial applications and non-manufacturing fields, safety, speed, accuracy, and cost issues mean that smaller payload models are more competitive.

10-20 kg cobots have seen some increased demand from the logistics and plastics and rubber industries. However, shipments of these models are still relatively low, and the applicability for >20 kg cobots is limited.

Key end industries for collaborative robots

Cobot manufacturers are striving to develop technologies suited to more and more manufacturing settings to increase cobot market growth potential. However, we have concluded that during the forecast period, electronics and automotive will remain the two largest end-industries. Together, they occupied half of the market share in 2019. But the barriers in these two industries are relatively high and it is difficult for new entrants to gain a foothold. On the other hand, service scenarios can be regarded as a potentially lucrative market for new entrants. In warehousing and logistics, health care, smart retail and other emerging industries, the safe and flexible characteristics of cobots are very attractive.

Most common applications

Material handling, assembly, and pick and place are forecast to remain the three biggest uses of cobots. These three functions which accounted for 71.9 per cent of cobot revenues in 2019 will hold a 62.7 per cent share in 2024.

Pick and place and assembly processes are usually small payload but repetitive tasks, inherently requiring greater accuracy and precision and typically a vision system to aid this. Traditional SCARA and small payload six-axis robots can also be effective. The advantage of cobots is the faster ROI and the ability to work side by side with workers.

Machine tending (included within the material handling category) is one of the biggest current uses of cobots. Machine tending applications are by nature highly repetitive and sometimes more dangerous for humans and here the use of cobots is highly advantageous.

By 2024, Interact Analysis forecasts the continuing emergence of pick and place as the third biggest application for cobots. There is clearly evidence that innovative cobot technologies are poised to penetrate a range of new manufacturing and non-manufacturing scenarios – settings for which industrial robots are unsuited.

China, Germany, North America, and the South Americas are predicted to be the biggest markets for cobot shipments over the next five years, with revenues growing at a CAGR of over ten per cent in each of those regions. Interestingly, the reasons why cobots are an attractive proposition vary from region to region. End-users in China, APAC and Eastern Europe are attracted by their relatively low upfront costs, ease of installation and ease of use. Small and medium sized companies use cobots to increase automation efficiency, mainly in labour-intensive industries such as electronics.

In Europe and North America, the safety features of cobots have received a lot of attention and are a focus for product development. In 2019, the three biggest end-users in North America were automotive, electronics, and the plastic and rubber industry. By 2024, although the automotive industry will continue to lead the field and will account for more than 25 per cent of revenues, cobots will make serious inroads into the chemical and pharmaceutical, and food and beverage sectors, surpassing cobot sales to the plastics and rubber industry, and almost outstripping sales to the electronics industry. Non-manufacturing usage is also emerging in the US.

In Japan and South Korea, due to the aging population and a shortage of labour, the ability of cobots to work alongside human beings represents a unique selling point.

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