Two reports, by a trade association and a financial analyst, say spending on robots and industrial automation is declining.
New orders of robots sold to North American manufacturers fell in 2008 by 21 percent in units and 16 percent in dollar value from 2007 levels, according to the Robotic Industries Association in Ann Arbor, Mich.
RIA said the sharp decline accelerated in the fourth quarter, when orders plunged 26 percent in number of units and 33 percent by dollars, compared with the fourth quarter of 2007.
For the year, North American companies ordered a total of 12,557 industrial robots, valued at $894.9 million.
Capital equipment expenditures are slowing dramatically in the automotive industry, traditionally the largest customer for robotics, said Jeffrey Burnstein, RIA's executive vice president.
Longer term, the move to smaller, lower-cost cars means car companies and suppliers will have to invest in new technology, and that should benefit robotics, said Tammy Mulcahy of ABB Robotics, who chairs RIA's statistics committee.
Outside of automotive, the outlook is brighter. Burnstein said non-automotive robot business topped automotive, in terms of dollars, for the first time since the trade association began collecting numbers 25 years ago. Measured by units, the breakdown was 51 percent automotive and 49 percent non-automotive.
RIA estimates that more than 186,000 robots are now being used in the United States, placing the country second only to Japan. More than 1 million robots are being used around the world, with countries such as China and India rapidly expanding their investments in automation.
The Robotics Industries Association is holding its International Robots, Vision & Motion Control Show June 9-11 in Rosemont, Ill.
Meanwhile, analyst Eli Lustgarten surveyed industrial automation distributors and integrators. In a report issued March 24, he said 48 percent now say the market is weaker than a year ago. The outlook is declining, because 24 percent of the surveyed respondents made that statement last October, and 34 percent in December.
Price increases have reportedly stopped almost entirely, said Lustgarten, of Longbow Research in Independence, Ohio. The vast majority 84 percent now say prices are flat.
Lustgarten's contacts give a mixed outlook for the next 12 months.