Robot Labor Is Growing Amid Labor Shortage

The U.S. has been slower to embrace robotics than other industrialized countries, but that’s changing.

June 03, 2022

Robot arms to prepare food orders

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Robot orders for workplaces increased 40% during the first quarter of 2022 compared with the first quarter of 2021, which is a record amount, reports the Wall Street Journal. Robot orders, worth $1.6 billion, were up 22% in 2021, following years of stagnant or declining order volumes.

The increase in robot orders comes amid rising wages for workers and a shortage of labor. The number of job openings in April declined by 455,000; however, vacant jobs still vastly outnumber available workers. CNBC reports that the decline in job openings left a gap of 5.46 million between openings and available workers, which is a historically high number. The job openings rate fell 0.3 percentage point to 7%.

The U.S. has been slower to embrace robotics than other industrialized countries. The number of robots deployed in the U.S. per 10,000 workers has traditionally trailed countries such as South Korea, Japan and Germany. But America’s attitude is shifting.

“Before, you could throw people at a problem instead of finding a more elegant solution,” Joe Montano, CEO of Delphon Industries LLC, a maker of packaging for semiconductors, medical devices and aerospace components, told the Wall Street Journal.

Delphon employed three additional robots earlier this year after losing 40% of its production days during January when COVID-19 spread through its workforce. The company is leasing the robots to reduce the initial expense and has a total of 10 robots, including four “cobots” that operate side-by-side with employees.

Delphon says that robots have improved the company’s productivity, resulting in shipments increasing about 15% in 2021 and 2020, respectively, without increasing the company’s workforce of 200 people.

“We haven’t reduced any head count, but we reassigned them to where we needed people,” Montano told the Journal.

However, Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Journal that factories’ increasing reliance on automation will lead to an oversupply of human labor that will drive down wages in the years ahead, unless other U.S. industries can absorb displaced manufacturing workers.

“Automation, if it goes very fast, can destroy a lot of jobs,” Acemoglu said. “The labor shortage is not going to last. This is temporary.”

Robotics have mainly been used in the automotive industry, with auto makers and manufacturers of auto components accounting for 71% of robot orders in 2016. In 2021, their share declined to 42%. Now, robots are being used more in food production, consumer product and pharmaceutical industries, among others, as robots are now more capable of more complex tasks, thanks to advancements in robotics.

“The robots are becoming easier to use,” Michael Cicco, CEO of Fanuc America, a unit of Japan’s Fanuc Corp., a major supplier of industrial robots, told the Journal. “Companies used to think that automation was too hard or too expensive to implement.”

With many industry observers stating the pandemic has triggered a fundamental “reset of retail,” new technologies including robotics, machine learning and AI also are being more rapidly deployed to enable operators to respond to the “new norm.” Read more in the NACS Magazine feature, “Robots Deliver.”

Last month, Walmart announced the expansion of its DroneUp delivery network to 34 sites in six states by the end the year, reaching up to four million U.S. households to deliver over one million packages by drone each year. Drone deliveries have been quietly taking off, with Amazon and Alphabet joining Walmart in utilizing the service.

Walmart also launched autonomous trucks for its online grocery sector, partnering with startup Gatik.

A session on “Robots and Retail” is on the agenda at 2022 NACS Convenience Summit Asia, July 19-21. For more information and to register visit