Get ready. The robots are coming.
Advanced industrial robotics are at an "inflection point," with lower costs and higher capabilities set to reshape the global manufacturing industry, according to new research from Boston Consulting Group. It predicts that, in the next decade, almost a quarter of automated tasks will be performed by robots – up from 10 per cent today.
The pace of adoption will be particularly quick in Canada, due to relatively high labour costs, flexible laws and because much of the manufacturing base is in transportation: the sector most likely to deploy robotics. A rapid pickup in usage will improve cost competitiveness relative to the United States, the report says.
Price is seen as the key driver of a "tipping point" in robot use. While prices have fallen in recent years – a new red robot called Baxter, for example, who costs less than $30,000, can package bottles – costs are expected to drop 20 per cent, while performance – in speed, flexibility and "other attributes" – will rise 5 per cent a year in the next decade.
"We're at a tipping point in terms of the costs of human labour versus the cost of robotic labour, with human labour getting more expensive in most countries and robotic labour getting cheaper and cheaper," said Hal Sirkin, Chicago-based senior partner.
For example, he cites a U.S. spot welding machine that works for about $8 an hour as opposed to a human welder who costs $20 an hour for the same output.
Robots are already transforming the factory floor, and the pace of change is expected to accelerate as robotics become easier and safer to use. Growth in the rate of industrial installation is seen hitting 10 per cent a year from about 3 per cent a year currently as the economics of robotics "get more favourable," he said.
The study, to be released Tuesday, predicts robots will boost productivity by up to 30 per cent in many industries over the next decade and cut labour costs by 16 per cent or more. The transition to robotics is seen being driven by four industries: Computer, electrical, transportation (including autos and equipment) and machinery sectors will buy about three quarters of robots through to 2025.
"The era of moving factories to capitalize on low-cost labour is coming to an end," the study says.
Rather, production lines will become more customized, factories will become smaller and more localized, and there will be fewer barriers for small and mid-sized companies. The work force, meanwhile, will require different skills – such as programming or mechanical engineering.
Of course, the rise of the machine will reduce the need for human labour, causing longer-term implications for employment. In Canada, the manufacturing sector employs nearly 1.5 million people, according to Statistics Canada's payrolls survey, making it the third-largest sector by number of workers in the country.
"There will be less people working in the factories. On the other hand, there's going to be a much higher-paid work force in the factories and more skills training," Mr. Sirkin said.
Canada's manufacturing cost competitiveness is projected to improve by two percentage points relative to the United States by 2025 due to labour-cost reduction and productivity gains from robotics, the study says.
In the near term for Canada, a sinking currency means imports of machinery and technology have become more expensive. But the loonie's fall also makes this country's exports more competitive – suggesting some opportunities for robotics makers.
The potential market for advanced industrial robotics is estimated at about 14 million units last year, with growth expected at about 2 to 3 per cent per year. The study figures the U.S. will deploy 1.2 million robots in the next decade.