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Autonomous robots assemble an SUV at the BMW manufacturing facility in Greer, S.C., on Nov. 4, 2019.

CHARLES MOSTOLLER/Reuters

The robot invasion slowed a bit last year.

U.S. companies installed fewer robots in 2019 than they did the year before, the first cut back since 2015, as a downturn in manufacturing fuelled by trade wars and weaker demand dampened appetite for the machines.

Shipments fell to 23,758, a more than 16-per-cent drop, according to data seen by Reuters that was set for release on Tuesday by the Association for Advancing Automation, an industry group based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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Robot shipments also fell in Mexico last year, declining 25 per cent to 3,263, while shipments in Canada roughly held steady at more than 3,000 units.

A major goal of U.S. President Donald Trump has been to drive manufacturers to bring work back to the United States, presumably aided by new automation and robotics that would allow domestic plants to compete with cheaper labour in China and other lower-cost countries. But that trend appears to have been overwhelmed by a larger slowdown in manufacturing.

Alexander Shikany, vice-president of the Association for Advancing Automation, said the slowdown is likely to be short lived. Orders for new robots in North America, a separate measure that gives a sense of how many machines will be installed in future months, increased last year by 1.6 per cent to 29,988 units, Mr. Shikany said.

The largest driver of that growth was a more than 50-per-cent jump in orders from automakers, which Mr. Shikany said were making robots part of their investment in the next wave of automotive technology.

No. 1 U.S. automaker General Motors Co, for example, recently announced it was investing US$2.2-billion to build electric trucks and autonomous electric vehicles at its Detroit-area plant in Hamtramck, Mich.

Hytrol Conveyor Co Inc., a privately held company in Jonesboro, Ark., that produces conveyor belts and had sales last year of more than US$200-million, did not cut back on robot installations in 2019. With demand from e-commerce businesses and other warehouse operations booming, the company spent US$1.9-million last year to help automate its assembly line.

David Peacock, the company’s president, said the company realized three years ago it would have trouble keeping up with demand growth without more robots.

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The investments have not cut jobs. Head count at Hytrol Conveyor’s factory has increased 18 per cent over the past three years to 1,300 workers. Revenues, meanwhile, are up nearly a quarter.

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