Robots are increasingly important to the U.S. manufacturing industry, as automation provides a productivity boost that’s critical for reshoring.

Industry analysts see a bright future for robotics in manufacturing nationwide, including the dozens of robotics companies in the Rocky Mountains.

All of the regional companies contacted for this story were likewise optimistic about the future, including MSI Tec, Wolf Robotics, and Colorado Automation & Design in Colorado; and Setpoint Systems of Ogden, Utah.

In a report this year, International Data Corporation (IDC) predicted compound annual growth of 17 percent globally in spending on robotics and related services, reaching $135.4 billion in 2019.

“Robotics is one of the core technologies that is enabling significant change in manufacturing through factory of the future initiatives. While traditionally used in the automotive industry, there is an increasing adoption of robotics in sectors like electronics, retail, healthcare, logistics, agriculture, services, education, and government,” according to IDC’s robotics research director, Dr. Jing Bing Zhang.

A CB Insights report, says venture capital investments in robotics doubled in 2015, to $578 million. PricewaterhouseCoopers says more than half of U.S. manufacturers use robots, with nearly a quarter-million working in U.S. factories in 2013.

The PwC report said more than one-third of companies it surveyed believe robotics in manufacturing will lead to new jobs in the U.S., with 26 percent saying there will be demand for talent to manage the robotic workplace. Whereas industrial robots have historically been mostly found in the automotive industry, more of them are showing up in the food and beverage, consumer goods, life sciences/pharmaceutical/biomedical and metals industries, the report says.

And the nonprofit Reshoring Initiative, an advocacy group, also reported this year that “reshoring” has offset the loss of jobs to the “offshoring” trend that sent millions of jobs overseas a dozen years ago. PwC agreed, saying the “role of robotics in a company’s changing or expanding operational footprint could be significant as manufacturers rethink the viability and attractiveness of offshoring.”

“The past several years have recorded a sharp resurgence in orders of industrial robots and this wider adoption comes at a time when manufacturers — both big and small — are trying to squeeze greater productivity from their workforce and respond quickly to customer preferences and expectations,” said Bob McCutcheon, PwC’s U.S. industrial products leader.

Part of this reshoring trend is being accomplished with “collaborative robots,” the kind of robot that works alongside humans in manufacturing plants.

“We’re really excited about the future,” says Josh Hays, business development manager for Setpoint, which is experiencing 15 percent year-over-year growth. “For the industry in general, there’s been a lot of talk that there is a reshoring U.S. manufacturing bringing jobs in China back to the U.S. and robotics is a big contributor to that.”

The jobs being created by robots in manufacturing are a mix of the traditional blue-collar laborers combined with skilled labor to work with the robots, Hays says. Setpoint’s opportunity, he says, is to provide engineering and other skills to manufacturers seeking robotics solutions.

The Fanuc LR Mate (above) is Setpoint’s most commonly used robot in today’s robot applications. – Photo courtesy of Setpoint.

Setpoint’s custom automation division, 24 years old, helps its customers integrate robotics into existing manufacturing systems. The company specializes in the design, build, and programming of complete custom automated solutions in many industries, including automotive safety, medical devices and ammunition manufacturing. It was the Utah Manufacturer of the Year in 2014, after seeing 100 percent growth in 2010. Last year it opened its own machine and fabrication shop and has its own CNC mills and waterjets.

Non-disclosure agreements limit the company’s ability to discuss most client installations, although Hays was open about a relationship with the U.S. government that had a major impact on Setpoint’s bottom line. In 2006, the company helped the government automate its ammunition manufacturing at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Missouri. The plant was still using World War II-era equipment, which resulted in a huge number of trashed brass casings on its assembly line. Setpoint’s solution enabled the plant to quickly identify and eliminate any problems, smoothing the process and eliminating a great deal of waste.

“It was a huge project for us and our equipment is still running phenomenally well,” Hays says.

Brian LeFevre, founder and president of Colorado Automation & Design in Aurora, has seen a surge in business opportunities. He expects the company’s sales revenues to grow as much as 200 percent year-over-year in 2016. “This industry goes up and down,” he says, “but we’re expecting a lot of growth because of our diversification.”

Colorado Automation does the engineering, design, and build for automated solutions in the food, aerospace manufacturing, industrial, medical and pharmaceutical industries. “There aren’t many industries we don’t get into in one fashion or another,” says LeFevre, who started the company in 2005 but has been in automation since 1992.

The company, which began in an Arvada machine shop, moved into its own facility two years ago and now has 11 employees. LeFevre says there has been a lot of interest in robots that can handle dangerous jobs and prevent repetitive injuries, although NDAs limit specifics. One system, though, is an automated brewery canning line he helped develop for Twin Monkeys Beverage Systems, of which he is a half-owner.

Colorado Automation, in partnership with Concept Systems of Golden, has installed about 30 high-speed pick-and-place robotics systems using Fanuc Delta robots and a custom vacuum gripper system. The systems enable companies to move their products at a rate up to 120 parts per minute.

Colorado Automation and Concept Systems also developed a small laser welding system for a Denver-area company using Epson Scara robots to load and weld stainless steel parts. Using vision software, the system orients the parts and the robot picks and places the part into a nest fixture. Paired parts are passed into a laser welding system. Another vision system inspects the parts.

Three of the sectors which Fort Collins-based Wolf Robotics has focused on — mining, energy, and agriculture — have been depressed since 2014, but CEO and President Doug Rhoda is sure those industries will recover. He’s also seen new opportunities emerge because the company’s acquisition last year by Lincoln Electric Holdings, a global leader in robotic arc welding systems.

Rhoda says the acquisition has brought Lincoln’s business expertise and global reach as well as opportunities like computer-aided robotics for steel construction. Wolf has won a national shipbuilding contract using robots for welding.

“We’re seeing a lot of development around collaborative robots, working with people and in confined spaces,” Rhoda says. “That’s a big trend, enabling robots into areas they haven’t been used before.”

One of Wolf’s strengths is in programming large robotics systems, especially off-line programming. A second area is additive manufacturing to build up components in layers.

Rhoda says additive manufacturing, where Lincoln Electric has strengths, will be a game-changer for the manufacturing of large parts. This is especially true in the aerospace industry because of its need for high-value parts in low-batch runs.

“We want to stay focused on where we can be best in the world and that is the fabrication area,” he says. He says Wolf doesn’t expect its core business areas in mining, energy, and agriculture to show much growth in 2016 but that global population growth will see a resurgence in those fields, especially in production of farm equipment.

Centennial-based MSI Tec, as an engineering-based technology company founded in 1983, is especially interested in collaborative robotics, often working with integrators, according to Mike Barrett, vice president. He says reshoring interest is on the rise because the latest robotics technology allows U.S. manufacturers to compete financially with overseas operations, especially if the robotics are running continuously.

Joel Moser, MSI Tec’s robotics product manager, says collaborative robots are especially useful doing menial tasks like taking parts off a conveyor belt. “It’s surprising the number of tasks like that out there,” he says. “With collaborative robots these are less expensive and the ROI is better.”

Collaborative robots also are expanding the whole robotics market because they automate procedures that hadn’t been automated before, Barrett says. Manufacturers can add collaborative robots without affecting earlier investments.

MSI Tec has customers in a wide variety of industries, including general factory automation, semiconductor, oil and gas, renewable energy and medical device manufacturing. Barrett says the company has installed thousands of machine automation applications, including industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) deployments.

MSI Tec Applications Engineer Laurie Fisk trains Sawyer the robot on a customer proof-of-concept demonstration for the medical industry.

Again, there is no question that robots are going to play a big role in manufacturing. As PricewaterhouseCoopers says, “industrial robots are on the verge of revolutionizing manufacturing. As they become smarter, faster, and cheaper, they’re being called upon to do more.”

Robotic technology, already used by more than half of American manufacturers, will continue to penetrate the industry. Robots will become more skillful at basic tasks as well as coming out of their cages to work hand-in-hand with humans, learning collaborative skills by “watching” human instructors, PwC says.

This “rise of the robots” is expected to completely change U.S. manufacturing in the years ahead.