Hello,Let me introduce myself. I wear two hats – both in robotics. One, as the editor/publisher of TRR, I attempt to track all the business-related news about robotics and bring them to your attention via my website, The Robot Report.The other hat is as a co-founder of a new and unique robotics industry tracking index for investors – the RS Global Robotics & Automation Index. This new index – the first to track the global robotics industry – was launched late last year with much fanfare and media hype including using a Universal Robot and Schunk hand to ring the closing bell on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange.Both hats recognize that this is great time for robotics. There’s a convergence between technology improvements, productivity needs and lower-cost components that has been heightened by media attention to the activities of Apple, Amazon, Google, GE, IBM, all the car companies, and Walmart – all getting on the robotics bandwagon.That convergence can be seen as robotics itself changes to be more adaptive, close and personal.
Last year at the Open Innovations Forum, MIT provided a book full of data showing Emerging Trends. One thought stuck out as paramount to me and you see it on the screen: If a country is going to innovate, it needs to be manufacturing things. The two processes are inherently interlinked. Advanced manufacturing, automation and robotics are integral to the process, hence this talk about what is emerging now in robotics around the world.
There is momentum toward a new generation of robots that interact with humans to relieve their strenuous activities and dull tasks.They are collaborative to the extent that workers can train the robots themselves – there’s no need for outside help or programmers.The transition is playing out before our eyes and in the tech press every day. New devices to assist in the home, with seniors, in the work place, and in the utilization of more capable artificial intelligence.Did you see the movie “Robot and Frank”? Great actors – Susan Sarandon and Frank Langella. Good story. But the use of an Asimo-like robot to be the elder care assistant to Frank is the part of the movie I want you to visualize. It shows all the activities that a robot will likely do fora significant number of senior and/or disabled citizens all over the world: remind, provide, fetch, clean, accompany, help, communicate and entertain to name just a few. The movie is available on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon.
Seeing the bigger picture is often done in hindsight. But this one is playing out before our eyes.The current front line for this transition is in the SME marketplace – for every Nissan, Toyota, Ford or General Motors there are 22,000 small shops and factories that can only remain competitive by automating and becoming more productive. There are 50 auto makers making more than 50,000 cars per year and there are at least 1.1 million SMEs worldwide. Hence there is a huge marketplace for manufacturing robots.The industrial robot makers are slowly bringing to market self-funded lightweight and sensitive robots for the new SME markets – entertainment, health and medical, personal assistance as well as shop, welding and factory robots.Service robotics providers are getting venture, commercial and governmental funding for all manner of commercial projects including those companies in the crossover space of SMEs. Hence the use of the word transition.Bottom line: robotics is not only booming; it is in transition. Industrial robot makers are slowly expanding into the service robotics sector AND service robot providers are energetically attempting to provide robotic solutions for all but the biggest of manufacturers. There will be some winners and losers – very soon.
Sense – think – act – (and be reprogrammable and act in the physical world to make the definition of a robot more precise).For SMEs robots need to be low-cost, safe to work alongside, flexible and do their tasks quickly and precisely.Holdups have been the slower development of learning and training, communication and grasping and manipulation than the lowering of the costs and availability of sensors and cameras.Winning robots must have eyes and ears to gather input, fast CPUs to process inputs, run controllers, pull from and process libraries, and arms and hands which can effect actions.Let’s talk about two vendors who are attempting to address those needs: Universal Robots and Rethink Robotics.
Here is a comparison of industrial robots versus the new-tech co-robot. Notice the 2nd line: industrial robots are designed to replace people; Baxter and other SME robots are designed to replace repetitive tasks and augment the productivity of the worker controlling the robot.
The two companies making inroads into the SME marketplace today are Rethink Robotics and their 2-armed Baxter robot and Universal Robots and their single UR5 and UR10 robots. Thus far Universal is far outselling Rethink with robots for SME-type companies, but Rethink is selling great into universities and research labs.I had experience with the Universal UR5 (the 5 stands for 5 kg). We paired it with a Schunk 3-fingered hand and used it for our media event on Wall Street. The Universal and Schunk hand rang the closing bell for the NASDAQ Stock Exchange on November 12th -- a first for NASDAQ. All the partners of Robo-stox, and reps from Universal, Schunk and NASDAQ were all there. Plus lots of reporters. It was very festive and a great media event. I have a link to a video of the event if you ask me.
Sticking with the SME marketplace, there will be a need for two-armed robots with all the other characteristics of a co-robot. Epson Seiko, YaskawaMotoman and ABB have prototypes which they are demonstrating and testing. No vendor - except Rethink Robotics – has a 2-armed robot for sale at the present time.Co-robots are often called collaborative robots because of the necessary communication the robot and the operator. Communication to train and program but also for the robot to ask questions of when it’s stumped.Co-robots are portable but not mobile at the present time. They aren’t fixed to the floor so they can be moved and clamped to a table and moved again and affixed to a mobile stand for other work.
A truely collaborative robot is a robot designed to assist human beings as an assistant within a shared space (home, office or work). It is flexible enough in structure, capabilities, communication and AI to work competently in each environment.Instead of special purpose robots, true collaborative robots will approach ASIMO in mobility and navigation, be limited in their work capability only by their AI and communication skills, and be designed to be profitable at a retail price under $10,000. I envision true collaborative robots to begin appearing early in the next decade.But first we have to see how the present transition by the established robot companies versus the upstarts plays out in this decade.
So… returning to my suggestion that you could see the future by watching the movie Robot and Frank. Here’s a bit of side-information: The producers couldn’t find a workable robot to use in the film so they hired Rachel Ma, a very limber actress, to portray the robot and fit her into an Asimo-like costume. She then watched videos of Asimo doing different things and trained herself to mimic what she saw.
Thus you have seen my vision of transitioning from caged to collaborative and the battle between new and old vendors. This is where both my hats comes into play – as a partner in Robo-stox and tracking the business of robotics for The Robot Report.The transition from worker robots in factories, to helper robots in small shops and factories, to assistant robots in limited situations later this decade, to full-fledged collaborative robots. Early versions will be showing up late this decade and affordable ones will hit the marketplace early in the 2020’s.Who are going to be the next big providers?Will the current big four prevail: ABB Fanuc YaskawaMotoman and KUKA?Will it be Danish Universal Robots, American Rethink Robotics, or somebody new like Google/Foxconn or . . . ?Or will it be some new service robot company that has yet to emerge? One where their AI uses all the new sensors and cameras and processing power better than all competing companies. AI is the key to the success of all robotic endeavors and it is true for collaborative robots as well.A lot is going to happen – and happen soon.Stay tuned – this transition will play out within the remainder of this decadeCheck out the best of the free resources as often as you can: IFR, TRR, RS, Robohub. All are free. If you or your company have the money for expensive research reports, there are many to choose from but much of the information is available free on the sites I mentioned.
Thank you and please feel free to seek me out and ask questions. I’ll be around the rest of today and all day tomorrow.