TOKYO – Japan is still the land of robots and the auto industry its major customer.

Global auto makers and suppliers purchased 78,000 units in 2012, 31% more than the previous year. Of these, an estimated six of 10 were sourced from Japanese manufacturers including Fanuc, Yaskawa Electric and Nachi-Fujikoshi.

In value terms, the 2012 total (counting only robot arms) was estimated at $15 billion, according to Morten Paulsen, machinery analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. He predicts global demand will grow to nearly $16 billion in 2013.

Paulsen estimates demand in North America will grow 5% in 2013 from last year’s 14,904 units, which included 8,445 to OEMs and 6,459 to suppliers. Sales to OEMs rose 47% and suppliers 21% in 2012.

Fueling growth this year is new capacity coming on stream in Mexico where Nissan, Mazda and Honda all will open auto plants over the next six months:in the case of Nissan, 170,000 B-segmentvehicles in Aguascalientes;  Honda, 200,000 Fitmodels in Celaya; and Mazda, 180,000 Mazda 2 and Mazda 3 units, as well as 50,000 subcompacts built for Toyota in Salamanca.

Until five years ago, the automotive industry accounted for 70% of the global market for robots, says Paulsen. “Today, that share has fallen to around 50% as nonautomotive applications,notably warehousing, have grown more rapidly.”

For Japanese robot manufacturers, 2013 will be the first year since 2007 that they experience an exchange-rate “tailwind,”with the dollar and euro each strengthening 20% over the previous 4-year average.

In the auto sector, Paulsen explains robots traditionally were employed almost exclusively in welding and painting. Now they are seeing increased usage in downstream applications such as windshield and seat installation.

The Japan Robot Assn.reportslocal automotive-relatedsales of ¥43.5 billion ($450 million) in 2012, up 33% over the previous year and accounting for one-third of domestic shipments. Of the total, ¥19.0 billion ($200 million) were to OEMS and ¥24.5 billion ($250 million) to suppliers.

During the first six months of 2013, domestic shipments fell 14% from ¥21.5 billion ($230 million) to ¥18.4 billion ($190 million). On a unit basis, sales were off 8% from 4,231 to 3,896 including 2,528 to component makers and 1,368 to OEMs.

By OEM, Paulsen reports:

  • Fanuc is the main supplier to Nissan, General Motors and PSA Peugeot Citroen, and is the No.2 supplier to Honda.
  • Fanuc and ABB Robotics, a division of ABB Asea Brown Boveri, split Ford and Chrysler business between them.
  • Yaskawa is the main supplier to Honda. It has a minority share with Nissan.
  • Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Nachi-Fujikoshi are the main suppliers to Toyota with Kawasaki holding an estimated 60% share.

Kuka is the main supplier to leading German brands: Volkswagen, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.