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US robots moving forward - with somewhat gawky baby steps

The American industrial-robot business could use a good lube job. For the past few years robot sales have been rusty, partly because of the recession and partly because of wary buyers. This ''darling industry'' has been somewhat disappointing - growing steadily, but not at the booming rate forecasters had predicted.

Not that robotmakers aren't trying. Next week the industry is playing host to its annual trade show in Detroit, where robots of all shapes and sizes will show off before prospective buyers. And at a recent press conference in New York, Panasonic Industrial Company put on quite a show of its own. There, employees pried open three big wooden crates to unveil the company's lineup of robots now ready for the United States market. Panasonic is a subsidiary of Matsushita Electric Industrial Company, the world's leading robotmaker.

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Right now, however, there are not enough customers to keep all the American robot sellers in business, so the industry is having a shakeout. As it is, few robotics operations in this country are profitable, although manufacturers say this is because they are still in the early stages of an industry where the goal is business and product development. Profits are to come later.

''In the early '80s, the projections were that the industry would grow 30 percent a year, and the growth rate last year was under 20 percent,'' said Donald Vincent, executive vice-president of the Robotic Industries Association.

With well-known names like IBM, General Electric, and Cincinnati Milacron in the business, the public perception is that this is a big industry. Actually, ''we're quite small,'' Mr. Vincent says. Last year, the whole industry pulled in only $240 million in revenues, according to Laura Conigliaro, a Prudential-Bache Securities analyst. (Other sources say even this figure is too high.) For 1984, Pru-Bache is forecasting $375 million. By 1990, Ms. Conigliaro says, sales will reach $2 billion.

The recession, of course, has been one of the dampers. But another problem is wariness on the part of buyers. ''We have the whole spectrum (of robots) here. . . . What we don't have is a ready and willing user, willing to take the risks, bring in a robot, and try it out,'' said Gerald Michael, a robotics analyst at Arthur D. Little Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm.

''We are still so concerned with the short term,'' he said, adding that manufacturers are not willing to invest in equipment that won't pay for itself quickly. Factory automation is a huge experiment, in the minds of many US producers. There are questions of displaced labor, financing the robot purchase, and learning the new technology.

(Many of these questions have been at least partly addressed in Japan, hence its big lead over US producers. Government financing incentives and labor retraining programs have stimulated sales.)

The recession and the anxiety of buyers may have stunted industry growth, but they haven't eliminated it. Recovery in capital spending has helped the industry achieve ''nice growth,'' says Mr. Michael.

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Mr. Vincent, of the trade association, is quite pleased with the response so far to next week's Detroit show. ''We're excited. We have over 4,000 rooms booked, and indications are that we should hit the 25,000 (attendants) we expected.''

Michael McCraley, project manager of the Panasonic Pana Robo product line introduced in New York last week, believes Panasonic can help open up the market with lower prices. ''A good reason a lot of business is not occurring is that pricing is extremely high,'' he said. Robots in the Pana Robo lineup - designed for light assembly work - have an average price of $25,000, less than half the average robot price last year, Mr. McCraley says. ''Depending on labor rates, and looking at a two-shift (work schedule), you could get easy payback in a year and a half.''

The biggest user of industrial robots in this country is the auto industry, mainly using welding robots and now installing paint-spraying models. Analysts, however, predict that assembly robots will be the biggest growth market in the long run. Robotmakers are eager to build machines that can assemble small, lightweight components, such as those used in consumer electronics products. This is the market Panasonic is going after.

Mr. McCraley believes Panasonic will be able to capture 5 percent of the US market by the end of 1986, because of its price edge, its own years of experience using the Pana Robo line in manufacturing, and the commitment and size of Matsushita.

But Panasonic has a long line of predecessors to compete with. Many US makers, including GE, IBM, GM, and Westinghouse, sell Japanese robots under various licensing agreements. Japan supplies the raw machine, while the US companies add the value of specialized engineering, installation, training, and service. ''Right now, GE can't make a robot as cheaply as the Japanese, and as long as that's the case, they are going to keep getting their robots from Japan, '' Mr. Michael said.

Other manufacturers here don't seemed too concerned over Panasonic's entry. ''(Panasonic) is a respected company, to be sure, but there are already a number of Japanese offerings in the US market with similar capabilities,'' said Philippe Villers, president of Automatix Inc., a Billerica, Mass., company that sells assembly robotics systems with vision sensors.

Automatix, like most other US robotics companies, imports the basic robot and adds its own value. ''We used to have a large number of (companies to buy from), '' he said; ''now we have a large number plus one.''

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