Four trends in robotics

 Four large and diverse trends are having a sizeable effect on the robots industry, according to The Robot Report.

1. Broad recognition

There is broad recognition within the business world for the value of robotics and that growing awareness is spreading to the media and financial community. Efficiency, reliability, low spoilage, and higher overall productivity are the real products of advanced automation. This is not going unnoticed, due to such strategic acquisitions such as Amazon's 2012 acquisition of Kiva Systems. Since then, similar acquisitions have taken place; the four most recent of which are:

  • The Chinese Ninebot acquired its competitor Segway, to settle their ongoing legal battles and obtain Segway's IP.
  • The German robot manufacturer Kuka bought Swisslog last year, in order to add mobility to the Kuka product line. It also took over Reis Robotics, which had a factory in China as well as a new one in Shanghai.
  • China South Rail (CSR) acquired the UK-based SMD, a manufacturer of underwater robotics technologies and systems. China intends to obtain core deep-sea robotic technology and equipment, next to the mature industry platform and global sales network of SMD, supporting its entry into the global deep-sea market. This is in addition to the existing activities of CSR.
  • Teradyne bought the Danish Universal Robots, manufacturer of one-armed robots and the primary competitor to American Rethink Robotics. Up until now, the electronics manufacturer only used the UR robots.

2. Effect of China

Global industrial robot sales reached 225,000 units in 2014, which is 27 percent more than in 2013. About 56,000 of these were sold in China, which is a growth of 58% as compared to 2013. Chinese companies made 16,000 of the 56,000 robots for the domestic market. To increase the number of domestically-made robots, many local governments provided the necessary investment credits and other financial incentives to work in their region. The number of distributors has grown from fewer than 100 to nearly 500. By the end of 2014 over 500 companies were active in the sector, with 90% focusing on the production of components and integration. The number is expected to increase to 800 by the end of 2015, and the number of manufacturers is expected to increase by 10%.

Driven by increasing wages and political incentives, China has become the largest buyer of industrial robots, and these robots are used by thousands. By 2017, China will have more robots operating in production sites than any other country, which will boost the automation of its car and electronics industry. Still, China lags behind as far as its robot density rate is concerned: around 30 robots per 10,000 workers compared to 437 in South Korea, 323 in Japan, 282 in Germany, and 152 in the US.

3. Visual perception

Vision-enhanced robotic systems are becoming the primary reason for upgrading and is the core reason for the continual growth of the robotics industry. The capability to determine its location in 3D makes it possible for robots to, for instance, safely engage in order-picking, which is very important for companies such as Amazon. Visual robotic systems are quite different from the classical industrial robots used in car manufacture: an object has to be brought to a "blind" pre-programmed robot in a specific spot at a specific time for processing. Each step of the process is hand-programmed and highly detailed. Newer systems that use cameras and identification software are more flexible, and can move the product from one step to the next. They are less rigid and precise and, as a consequence, the movement system is less expensive.

Various AI learning systems have been improving visual perception, and quite a few new companies offer vision systems that can supplement existing systems. Alternatively, they offer mobile manipulators that can determine how best to pick and handle all sorts of objects from various materials. Reducing costs by replacing expensive transport systems by cheaper mobile bin-picking robots is successful because of the many possibilities for manufacturers or warehouse operators. Companies to watch for these mobile manipulators are Fetch Robotics, RightHand Robotics, Clearpath Robotics, Adept Technologies, and Kuka/Swisslog.

4. Human/robot collaboration

The original intention was to provide SMEs with robots to improve production, become more cost-effective and thereby more competitive as well, so as to halt their movement offshore. Rethink Robotics' Baxter and Universal Robots' one-armed robots were pioneers in this segment. At the same time a movement has started to make companies more aware and understanding of the advantages of cobots as well as the business opportunities that they can bring.

A large user of cobots is the car manufacturer BMW, which already uses 7,500 robots in its factories. The company has been testing UR robots alongside factory workers, who were given less exhausting tasks. The test results were so positive that BMW is considering doubling or even tripling the number of robots.

At the moment, cobots make up 5% of the overall robotics market, though this number is expected to grow strongly in the future. The leaders in this field will most likely be ABB with Robert, Rethink Robotics, who has made its systems faster and more precise, and is introducing the new Sawyer robot, as well as market leader Universal Robots. Many other up and coming companies are expected as well. The market is expected to increase ten-fold between 2015 and 2020. Insiders expect an even more rapid growth, with light-weight robots being a top seller within two years.

A number of these robots can be found in the Sirris' Diepenbeek production hall. Companies can be introduced to the possibilities and test their function for their own activities.

This blog was created as a part of the project 'Via 7 sleuteltransformaties naar waardeketens voor de maakindustrie van de toekomst', with support by Agentschap Ondernemen. 

(Photo: The Robot Report)