Since the 1980's we've seen robots outside of the factory - vacuums, drones, bomb disposal devices, embedded systems for cars, hazardous materials and location monitoring bots - but expected to see more. Our expectations are so much higher than what's thus far come to market that the industry is looked at somewhat cynically.
Some say the technology is not yet ready; others claim the economic drivers aren't there to propel the industry forward; still others say that more directed research and funding must occur before major robotic product solutions can happen. Yet even with massive investments by DARPA, the EU and many Asian governments, one can still ask, Where are the robots?
Well, here's where the robotics industry stands at the end of the first quarter, 2011:
|Automate 2011, McCormick Place, Chicago, IL|
Industrial robots are defined as automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.
Service robotics are all other robots and robotic applications and systems than industrial robots.The IFR data showed that most of the industrial sector, excluding Japan, had recovered from the 2009 lows of the economic crisis. The U.S. and EU were not fully back to 2008 levels but very close. This was supported by an analyst for the Automation Technology Council of the Imaging Association. His charts showed growth of material handling applications throughout the recession and that welding applications diminished. Also, he predicted double digit growth for motion vision vendors for the next few years. He affirmed my analysis which showed that almost all robotic manufacturers are not American; only integrators are US companies. Quoting from a press release from the IFR: "The automotive industry will drive the automation levels in China. Other industries like plastics, food, and electronics are following."
The figures from both sources showed three remarkable facts:
- A 127% growth in China, Korea and ASEAN countries.
- The service sector didn't go down as much as the industrial companies did -- and it grew steadily during the recession.
- Much of the growth in industrial robotics was due to the recovery and renewal of facilities for newer hybrid cars in the auto industry.
|Executives participating in IFR press conference|
Yet these very same features were part of what is propelling the service robotics sector forward... think Robonaut2, DARPA's ARM project, etc.
Economic drivers propelling these and other service-sector robotics are:
|South Korean iRobi Q teaching|
assistant robot from Yujin Robotics
- Healthcare & Quality of Life: to control costs, empower healthcare workers, and enable aging citizens to live longer in their homes.
- Energy & Environment: critical to our future especially in the areas of automating the acquisition of energy and monitoring the environment.
- Homeland Security & Infrastructure Protection: border protection, search and rescue, port inspection, inspection, maintenance and safeguarding bridges, highways, public water and energy systems and pipelines and other critical infrastructure components.
- Entertainment & Education: address the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educational crisis and to become the veritable "fourth R" of education (see article about South Korean r-learning project).
- Manufacturing & Logistics: further automate manufacturing and movement of goods, transform small scale or micro manufacturing operations and help maintain businesses from moving offshore by increasing productivity.
|Exhibition Hall at InnoRobo in Lyon, France|
Crowd is looking at Nao robots
Bruno Bonnell, President of the French Union of Service Robotics (Syrobo) and Chairman of RoboPolis, in his presentation at InnoRobo in Lyon, France, said that the service robotic market would multiply to 30 times the current rate this decade and be a $100 billion per year industry by 2020!
Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China's governments are aware of these projections and have created robotic stimulus programs with this $100 billion industry in mind. Gaining market share will provide jobs and revenues to these strategic early planners -- America take note.
Two-thirds of present-day service robotics industry revenue is in defense, security and space but it is expected that near-term and future growth will be be in the five groups shown above (healthcare, energy, education, et al).
|Presentation at City Hall in Lyon, FR|
Market research indicates smart toys, educational kits, tutorial and teaching devices, home cleaners and lawnmowers are all reaching the price point for the mass market to accept and adapt to these consumer robotic products. Further, it was the general consensus at the business forum that there were two major trends underway:
- Consumer robotics would precede personal robots, and
- Expectations are greater than the market can presently deliver; thus being able to produce a robotic device that performs to it's advertised specs is paramount.
In an editorial in the IFR World Robotics Service Robotics Report for 2010, asking the same question as mine (Where are the robots?), Nicola Tomatis of BlueBotics SA, a spin-off from the EPFL in Switzerland, asked (and answered) a question we are all asking.
My advice to the service robotics community is… Start new ventures, go out to meet users and experts, be open-minded and creative, and team up with the right partners to create the added value that will bring service robotics to success!His response mirrors my thoughts entirely... which is why one of the periodic ads on The Robot Report is my personal ad asking readers if they need marketing, management and financing for their robotic endeavors.