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Robots have gone from conceptualization in far-out, yet farsighted science fiction novels to where they are no longer a novelty on packaging production operations.

That’s not just an impression, it’s a fact: The industry’s trade group, the Robotic Industries Association [] (RIA) estimates that approximately 232,000 robots are now at use in United States factories, placing the U.S. second only to Japan in robots.

The North American robotics market has recorded its strongest year ever in 2012, according to RIA statistics, when a total of 22,598 robots valued at $1.48 billion were sold to NA companies, beating the previous record of 19,337 robots sold in 2011.

The latest RIA figures reported in late 2013 show mixed news: NA robotics orders have declined while robotics shipments have soared. However, there is a caveat: The slowdown comes from the automotive segment. Sales activity continued to be especially strong in non-automotive industries including Food and Consumer Goods, all of which posted double-digit growth through September.

Anyone who has followed packaging over the years has witnessed the rise of the robots in packaging operations, trending upward as each generation of robotic systems have become nimbler, speedier and smarter…and more cost effective.

For example, a major commitment by Woodbridge Winery to switch to bulk glass loads was justified by high-speed robotics on the infeed side where even removing the loads’ unitizing materials is done robotically (see Woodbridge Winery bulks up production and takes up boxing). 

Companies like Voortman cookies have added carton-packaging robots—a well-coordinated trio of robots, no less—to its recipe for producing and packaging cookies efficiently. It also uses Delta-style robots to pick-and-place the fragile cookies into trays (see Robotics remain a key ingredient at Voortman).

Robots are becoming more even sophisticated even as they become easier to “train.” And they are being released from their usually confining cages: Recent developments include adaptive robots where no programming is required—neither are any safety cages or fencing.

Now that they’re out of their cages, anything’s possible.