World Robotics 1998 – Statistics, Market Analysis, Case Studies and Profitability of Robot Investment


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 1 February 2000




Hutton, D.M. (2000), "World Robotics 1998 – Statistics, Market Analysis, Case Studies and Profitability of Robot Investment", Kybernetes, Vol. 29 No. 1, pp. 144-155.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Robotics is an essential discipline in our multidisciplinary field. It provides real examples of the application of cybernetics and systems in our industrialised society.

This is a very commendable joint publication co‐authored by the International Federation of Robotics and the Economic Commission for Europe’s Statistical Division. Readers should not be put off this publication because it is dated 1998. Although later statistics will by now be available texts of this nature that produce and publish yearly data and brands must necessarily be at least 12 months behind the current state. It takes at least that length of time for the accurate figures, as opposed to statistical predictions and raw results, to be compiled and analysed.

Both Tom Griffin (UN/Economic Commission for Europe’s Director of the Statistical Division) and Rolf Schraft (Chairman of the International Federation of Robotics) agree that:

Since their introduction at the end of the 1960s industrial robots have undergone an impressive technological evolution. With declining real prices and continuously improved performance, robots are now widespread in industry in many countries while in others the technology is on the verge of being introduced. Robotics has become a symbol of industrial automation in its most advanced form.

Few cyberneticians and systemists would disagree that the current stage is one frequently predicted by the great names in the field as one of the ultimate goals of a controlled society. This text helps us to realise these advances are actually happening and the statistics are produced to prove it. What these figures show is that robots form the centrepiece of computer integrated manufacturing systems. They have become, the co‐authors say, “the symbol of industrial automation in its most advanced form”. What is often forgotten, and the statistics and comments in this joint publication quickly remind us about, is that introducing robots into industry is a “double‐edged” operation that is motivated not only by the need to improve productivity but also to obtain a better and more consistent product quality.

We are told, for example, that the total accumulated yearly sales of robots since the beginning of the 1970s amounted at the end of 1997 to about 950,000 units of which about 710,000 are estimated to be in operational use. The published tables also indicate that there is a range of new applications that appears to be growing so that it is not only in industry that robotics systems are found, but also in construction and in the services such as hotels, health care, laboratories, surgery, etc. A great potential for new applications is apparent and there is every reason, based on the information supplied in the text, to believe that robotics will continue in its present upward path and play an increasingly important role.

This publication is divided into six sections and provides an Annex of tables. The present text has been renamed from World Industrial Robots to World Robotics. This is because the compilers have recognised the roles of not only industrial robots but also service robots. The publication does, however, recognise that for many years ahead the focus will still be on industrial robots. A new section has also been added which contains case studies of actual robot installations. What is important is that this study of actual cases is designed to show the effects that robots have had on costs, production and employment structure as well as giving an indication of that essential constituent to any such study profitability. Another innovation that readers of previous editions will notice is the addition of a special study on “Robotics in the food and agriculture industry”. This benefits from an introduction written by Mike Wilson of the British Robot Association (BRA) to three interesting and useful articles on: “MAFF‐fact finding mission on robotics – ‘out of the factories and into the fields”’ (BRA); “Robotics in packaging: the adept experience” (C. Duncheon, Adept Technologies Inc., USA); and “Putting the icing on the cake” (I. Rennell, R. Williams and T. Simpson).

Once again the question arises as to what is an industrial robot and what is a service robot. Definitions seem to vary from publication to publication and country to country. One writer neatly defined these as any definition that provides a better set of robotic statistics for the government department charged with supplying them. The IFR has, however, adopted a preliminary definition with the caveat that it is subject to change based on experience gained in collecting the appropriate data. Since the whole credence of this UN/IFR statistical summary depends on such definitions readers are advised to consider them most carefully. A service robot, for example, is defined as:

A robot which operates semi or fully autonomously to perform services useful to the well being of humans and equipment, excluding manufacturing operations.

We are told that with this definition, manipulating industrial robots could also be regarded as service robots provided they are installed in non‐manufacturing operations. Further semantics tell us that service robots may or may not be equipped with an arm structure as an industrial robot. Service robots often, but not always, can be mobile. The different types of service robots are illustrated in the text to help the reader in categorising the current robot population.

According to the definition ISO 8373 we have the ability to recognise a manipulating industrial robot as an:

automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose, manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.

As with all definitions the terms used have to be defined or at least explained and this has been done satisfactorily.

Most people rarely read a statistical publication since it is prepared after all to provide data. This book does, however, have some “readable” text to accompany the large array of statistical tables and figures. Essentially, it is, of course, a reference book, and a very useful one in a series that is worth preserving if only to appreciate the time series data.

An “Executive summary” provides an excellent precis of what is to be provided. Indeed the Table I provides a fascinating insight into the distribution of installations of robots and the forecasts for 1998‐2001. The countries Japan, USA, Germany, Italy, France and the UK – the “Big Six” as they are called – had 71,377 robot installations in 1997 and are forecasted to have 99,300 in 2001. They completely outshine all the other nations listed, who together can only muster 13,510 in 1997, and are predicted to have 20,500 robot installations in 2001. This level of activity and development is mirrored in other data produced by these countries.

The main Introduction deals with many subjects including the problems of definition and classification of robots by type and application area. Readers are advised to read this thoroughly before using the data tables and figures that are provided in the following sections. These sections look at worldwide diffusion of industrial robots; structure of the diffusion by individual countries; forecasts of the investment in industrial robots (1998‐2001). The final sections consider robotics in the food and agriculture industry and the profitability of industrial robots – with the very useful analysis of case studies. Finally, the Annex has some detailed tables which show on a yearly basis (1981‐1997) the trends in such factors as yearly sales of industrial robots, stock and shipments.

There is no doubt about the importance of this publication, which is claimed to be the world’s only publication which presents comprehensive statistics on industrial as well as service robots. Its detailed statistical data for 20 countries make it an essential reference text. It also contains trends and prediction data and information about developments in 1997 with its forecasts reaching 2001.

Readers do need, however, to realise that it is based on data collected from and transmitted by more than 20 countries by their national industrial robot associations. In addition, researchers who use the text should analyse the definitions of the robots referred to and the categories they have been placed in. With this in view, it is a well worthwhile publication that has been well prepared and access to it is surely essential to all developers, practitioners and researchers in these fields of endeavour. Cyberneticians and systemists will also find that in addition to the wealth of data presented it has a well‐written readable text.

Related articles