One of the biggest high-tech disappointments of the 1980s has been the failure of the robot industry to grow as optimists forecast at the beginning of the decade – and there is no smart upturn in sight. Spending cutbacks by US automakers will put the brakes on the domestic robot industry for the next two years, according to the chief executive of North America’s largest robot supplier. Robot companies’ sales grew at an annual rate of 30% to about $600m in 1985, and that figure was matched last year, declared Eric Mittelstadt, president of Troy, Michigan-based GMF Robotics Corp. But 1987 sales probably will slip 30% to about $420m, then remain nearly flat in 1988 and 1989, Mittelstadt, who also is president of the Ann Arbor-based Robotic Industries Association, said in an interview published last week in the Detroit News. Mittelstadt attributed part of the decline to spending cutbacks and cancelled orders by General Motors Corp, one of GMF’s parent companies – the other is Fanuc Ltd – and a substantial investor in various robotics companies. The growth in the market is going to depend on how effective the companies in the robotics industry are at getting at those thousands of other customers in non-automotive industries, Mittelstadt said. Although automakers are the biggest users of robots, GMF has countered the decline in motor industry demand by diversifying its customer base to include the electronics, aerospace and heavy equipment industries, but the sales slump also has forced the joint venture to curtail some research and development, Mittelstadt said.
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