If the COVID-19 pandemic hastened the adoption of remote work, the recovery from it could become known for accelerating another advanced technology: robots.
Manufacturers have long turned to automation to make their operations more efficient and, in recent years, to cope with a lack of available workers. But this year, as labor markets tightened and employee pay rose, companies responded with an unprecedented investment in robotics.
Industry group the Association for Advancing Automation, Reuters reports, found that the number of robots ordered by North American companies set a record in the first half of the year. In the second quarter alone, companies ordered more than 12,000 robots worth over $580 million — a 25% increase in orders compared to the same period in 2021.
The increase coincides with federal numbers showing worker compensation costs up more than 5% in the quarter — the highest increase since the Labor Department began tracking those numbers more than 20 years ago. Consumer demand also remains robust despite persistent inflation.
Although the pace of robot orders reflects urgency from manufacturers, it has yet to translate into more efficient operations: workplace productivity dropped at its fastest pace on record in the latest quarter. That could be a reflection of continued pandemic-related labor upheaval — more workers changing jobs — but analysts also noted that it can take time to deploy and optimize new technology. Nearly 60% of the robot orders in the latest quarter, for instance, came from the auto industry, which is investing heavily in new operations that won’t be up and running for years.
The need for robots, meanwhile, appears poised to continue. For every unemployed worker, Reuters notes, there are nearly two unfilled jobs.