Thursday, December 6, 2012

The patent grip loosens

by Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

VGo Communications wins infringement lawsuit brought on by InTouch Health and also initiates a patent reexamination of four other InTouch patents.

InTouch Health's newest robot, RP-VITA and VGo Communications VGo.

InTouch Health, a company that has been providing remote presence services to the medical community for the past decade contacted VGo and suggested that they agree to a licensing agreement of InTouch patents. A suit followed and, in a Los Angeles Federal District courtroom yesterday, a jury found that VGo Communications did not infringe. 

VGo requested that the US Patent Office re-examine four patents held by InTouch. VGo provided supporting documents on why those patents were invalid. To date, the US Patent Office has ruled on three of the re-examination requests and has rejected all of the claims within those patents previously granted to InTouch. The fourth patent is still in the re-examination process. This is just the beginning of what appears to be an ongoing round of claims and counter claims and appeals leading off to a decision - instead of by a jury - by patent experts at the Appeals Court.

In rhetoric typical of the best political spin doctor, Peter Vicars, CEO of VGo Communication said, "InTouch Health has been taking advantage of an overworked patent system in order to secure invalid patents that they then use to bleed competitors with frivolous lawsuits. New companies are producing competitive products at prices significantly less than what InTouch charges so InTouch is using teams of lawyers to maintain their exorbitant prices." 

Rhetoric aside, VGo's low-cost two-way audio video communications combined with remote controlled mobility enables nurses, doctors and social workers to check on patients without having to be physically present. They feel better cared for and appreciate the extra effort. Recovery times are quicker and re-admissions are reduced. More time for the healthcare worker and lower costs for the healthcare organization.

The entry into the healthcare marketplace by VGo - a marketplace nurtured and developed by InTouch over the past decade - appears to be the root cause of the suit. InTouch trail-blazed the products, the FDA clearances, the marketplace and they want to protect their turf.

At a recent conference on remote presence telemedicine the most enlightening thing I saw was four hours of tightly-packed presentations by critical care doctors and hospital administrators, all users of InTouch Health's remote presence robots, all portraying different aspects of why remote presence in health care is relevant, is saving lives and is necessary today and why it will continue to be in the future. InTouch has created a market that didn't exist with products that weren't being used in the way they are now. Certainly on a personal note one would think that there is room for more companies to assist in this very noble work.

But this is where patents kick in to protect that investment in market and product development which InTouch did. In fact, patents protect the holder for 17 years. Thus the courts decision is a bigger subject than just InTouch vs. VGo.

There has been a lot of gossip and more serious discussion within the healthcare devices industry about patents, their use in marketing strategy, their hindering product development, and their true value as intellectual property (IP).

Within the robotics healthcare community, much of that gossip has been focused on Intuitive Surgical and their da Vinci Surgical System. From the beginning, when Intuitive spun out from Stanford and SRI, they immediately had a legal battle with Computer Motion, the inventor of a similar system called Zeus. Since that time Intuitive has regularly contacted competitors to either get them to cease operations or license their patents. Many felt that this thwarted development of competing or better systems than the da Vinci. They have suggested that Intuitive Surgical has made a strategy of amassing large numbers of patents - some of which are so broad as to be susceptible to being thrown out on reexamination - to try to protect their product and market share.

This is the essence of the arguments that people have used against Intuitive Surgical for the past 10 years. Except that no company has asked the Patent Office to reexamine their patents… yet.

In their suit with Computer Motion a decade ago, Intuitive won. But shortly thereafter, Computer Motion won their counter-suit. Stalemate. The two companies met outside of court and agreed to merge, shut down the Zeus operation, pay off the owners of Computer Motion with a small cash amount and 30% of Intuitive Surgical stock - a company that today has a net worth of close to $21 billion. Thus the consequences of these patent battles are significant.

Yulan Wang, the founder of Computer Motion, moved on after the acquisition [of Computer Motion by Intuitive Surgical] to found InTouch Health, the very same company that just lost the first round of their battle with VGo. 

New systems have proliferated in remote presence and robotic-assisted non-invasive surgeries but, in the case of surgical systems, none have yet to make it to market. RAVEN and SPRINT are two such systems presently in the news with reviews indicating that they are viable competitors to the da Vinci system.

The Raven operating system is helping the open-source community advance the state of the art in surgical robotics. In a joint venture between the University of Washington and UC Santa Cruz, the National Science Foundation funded the development of seven identical Raven II surgical robots. Each system has a two-armed surgical robot, a guiding video camera, and a surgeon-interface system built on top of ROS. These surgical robots are linked via the Internet so researchers can easily share new surgical robotics research and developments. Five Raven II robots have been given to major medical facilities at Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Nebraska, UC Berkeley, and UCLA.

“SPRINT” is an EU-developed master-slave teleoperated robotic platform designed for bimanual interventions by means of a single access port. The system is composed by two main arms, a stereoscopic-camera, and additional devices, e.g. retractor or other assistive instruments that can be inserted through a central tube left free in the access port after the introduction. The surgeon console is composed of two master manipulators, a foot-switch and a 3D full-HD display.

Single-port surgical system by Intuitive Surgical.

Intuitive Surgical has recently announced their single-port surgical system, a competing concept to the SPRINT system. One can see another patent battle coming.
In the early years of automobile development, a group owned the rights to a two-cycle gasoline engine patent. By controlling this patent, they were able to monopolize the industry and force car manufacturers to adhere to their demands or risk a lawsuit. In 1911, independent automaker Henry Ford won a challenge to the patent. The result was that the patent became virtually worthless and a new association - which would eventually become the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association - was formed. The new association instituted a cross-licensing agreement among all U.S. auto manufacturers: although each company would develop technology and file patents, those patents were shared openly and without the exchange of money between all the manufacturers. By the time the U.S. entered WWII, 92 Ford patents and 515 patents from other companies were being shared between these manufacturers, without any exchange of money - or lawsuits. The best braking system was shared by all as was the best window wiper, and many, many other inventions passed freely from one car company to the others. The result was the the user benefitted with the safest and best cars, no matter the brands - and the auto industry flourished as well.
If something like this were to happen in the medical robotics arena, these wonderful new inventions would be available all over the world and patients, care-givers and healthcare systems would all share in the benefits and lives saved.

Perhaps there will be a time in the near future when new products like RAVEN and SPRINT will have a similar success as did VGo - maybe even without the costs and resources diverted from product development to fighting court cases.

Nevertheless, InTouch Health today filed an appeal of the verdict and also the patent reexaminations.

Monday, November 26, 2012

1,000 Robot Makers!

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Well... actually 1,070. Presented on this map are 1,050 robot manufacturers and the top 20 robotics universities and research facilities. Every type of company; every facet of the industry; most industrialized countries of the world are represented. From big companies like KUKA, ABB and Fanuc to start-ups like Redwood Robotics in California and Etnamatica in Sicily; from Iceland to Western Australia. These companies are robot makers; they may or may not also be robot users. That's for another map.

Red markers reflect 200+ industrial robot makers; Green is for the 180+ start-up companies; and Blue is separated into two groups: "S" for service robots for governmental and corporate use while "P" covers service robots for private or personal use. Yellow is used to show the location of the top 20 robotic research and educational facilities. A country-by-country table is shown below.

The global map does not cover an additional 825+ ancillary businesses such as image systems, software developers, engineering and consulting firms, integrators and resellers, designers, servo, laser and stereo camera providers, etc. Nor does it cover 225+ other educational facilities and research labs. These can be found in our Ancillary Businesses and Educational and Research Facilities Directories.

The map is also limited by my own research capabilities, language translation limitations, and scarcity of information about robotics companies in emerging countries. It show a single entry for a company headquarters regardless how many branches, subsidiaries and locations that company might have.

In spite of all those caveats, at first glance I was impressed by the sheer quantity of the markers. One can easily see that many of the start-ups and service robotics companies are located near prominent Yellow-marked universities and research labs in clusters surrounding Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Harvard, UC Berkeley, Stanford and Willow Garage, the University of Tokyo and TITECH, etc. Or areas of innovation and energy like Seoul, Korea, Israel and New York City.

Red markers - industrial robot makers - stand out for their predominance in the industrial sections of the world: Germany, Switzerland and Central and Western Europe and the UK, Japan, Korea and the Great Lakes area of the US. 

Blue markers - service robots (every other type of robot except industrial) are everywhere as are Green start-up markers. These are the emerging robotics companies in non-industrial robotics: robots used in healthcare, scientific labs, for defense and security, in academia, as toys, for remote presence and autonomous mobility underwater, on the ground and in the air and for a myriad of other uses.

There is a filtering option where you can just view start-up companies, or industrial robot makers, etc. Just choose your view from the options box just below the map on the left side.

This map will continue to grow above the 1,000 mark as I continue my research. If I've missed your company or companies that you know about, please send me a message.

Finally, for those of you who might be asking how and why this chart came to be, it happened because as I originally attempted to invest in stocks in the industry I found that there was a serious lack of information available about the industry. Most companies are not publicly-traded; they are privately held with no requirement to provide information. Thus I began an intensive research project that took me to Japan, Korea, China, Germany, France, Switzerland and all over the Internet. My eyesight has suffered but not my mind. I love what I'm doing and finding out. In an effort to share my research I set up The Robot Report to track the business of robotics. Later I started the Everything-Robotic blog to supplement The Robot Report with periodic in-depth reviews and insights. Recently I produced a map showing the location of start-up companies involved with robotics. This map replaces that one because it shows start-ups in a bigger context: in perspective to the overall robotics industry itself. I hope you find it useful and illuminating.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Eldercare Robots

Games, sensors and robots are among the tools beginning to come to market to help aging people live in their homes as long as possible.

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Source: BusinessWeek Magazine
In December, 2003, BusinessWeek Magazine interviewed Joseph Engelberger, the robotics pioneer. The article was entitled "How Robots Lost Their Way." Included in the article was a plea for money to build an eldercare robot which Engelberger thought could be built with then-current technologies, rented for $600 per month, operated at a cost of $1.25 per hour (compared to healthcare homeworkers who cost around $15 per hour) and developed at a cost of less than $700,000.
"The robot I'm working on will be two-armed, mobile, sensate, and articulate. It doesn't need to communicate a great deal to meet the needs of an 85-year-old. A human can ask: "What's for lunch?" and the robot can respond with what it's able to make, or it can say: "We're going to Johnny's," or "We just had lunch." The voice recognition, behavioral systems and artificial intelligence necessary to do this are ready. Most of the other technologies are, too. We don't need more navigation development -- getting around an apartment is easier than moving through a hospital or on Mars, which robots do now. I could prove this functionality with the right partner for about $700,000 in 14 months or less."
I phoned him and started a many-day conversation on the subject. He was a fun character to talk with and I learned much in the process. But when we got to the part where I offered him the money he said he needed, he said, "No. I don't want your money. You're just an investor. I want money and partnerships with Panasonic (NYSE:PC), or Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), Philips (NYSE:PHG) or Siemens (NYSE:SI); they're in the business [healthcare products], have deep pockets, and have what I need for the robot to be successful: [1] design and manufacturing capability and [2] marketing experience in the health and eldercare marketplace."

Nine years later Engelberger's eldercare visions are still a work in progress in research labs around the world. Products are emerging but very slowly and their solutions are not as broad-based and flexible as Joe imagined. Most are single-purposed and not for home use; and none are produced by the companies Engelberger mentioned. Panasonic (NYSE:PC) has a line of robotic hospital devices; Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) discontinued their iBot stair-climbing wheelchair; Honda (NYSE:HMC) and Toyota (NYSE:TM) showcase their walking research robots but other than robotic lawn mowers (Honda) don't have any robots available for purchase.

Although recent European studies indicate that there is resistance to having elderly people minded by a robot, when given the choice of robotic care versus moving into a care facility, the resistance disappears. Another study from GA Tech showed that seniors preferred robotic help for household chores but not for personal needs (help getting dressed, bathing, etc.). This knowledge - and the spreading aging demographics of Japan, the US and other countries, is propelling research into home healthcare robots such as the one which appeared in the movie Robot & Frank earlier this year. The many stakeholders in robotic healthcare (family members and caregivers; healthcare providers; technology providers; aging or disabled individuals) all have similar goals: to provide independence, preserve dignity, empower those with special needs and provide peace of mind to all of the stakeholders.

Every major robotics university and research lab has some form of healthcare and quality of life research including home care robots: GA Tech has Cody; CMU has HERB; the Fraunhofer Institute has Care-O-Bot, Yale, USC and MIT are running a NSF-funded Socially Assistive Robotics project; CIR and KAIST in Korea have their own robot projects, etc. Nevertheless, the multi-purposed home healthcare robot Joe Engelberger envisioned back in 2003 still hasn't emerged - and specifically hasn't surfaced from any of the major home healthcare providers. Instead, present-day strategy appears to be to provide high-cost, high-need, single-purpose devices, spun off from university research, and marketed to hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, and wait until the technology develops further - or the political climate changes dramatically - before releasing Engelberger-style lower-cost, more capable, multi-purposed robots designed to be affordable and mass produced by the likes of Panasonic, Siemens and Philips, for home use.

Why are there so few products released and why aren't there any fully capable devices like Engelberger described? I asked roboticist and blogger Travis Deyle who was a member of the Healthcare Robotics Lab at GA Tech while working on his PhD. Hizook, Travis' blog, is a site that provides robotics news for academics and professionals:
"There are easier markets than eldercare. To build a viable home robot requires significant expertise in a number of sub-fields, which naturally opens doors to other markets that are easier to monetize. Consider Kinect, Siri, IMUs (inertial measurement units with accelerometers and gyros), photo mapping like Google Maps, etc. We've seen MAJOR industries and products pop up around each of these. Why focus on building an integrated system when there's so much fertile ground in these other markets?"
"The political climate in the US just isn't committed to robot healthcare solutions -- at least not in juxtaposition to defense robots. Just imagine a DARPA robotics challenge for healthcare robots... Instead of BigDog, we could have Service Dogs; instead of PetMan, we could have an in-home helper; instead of soldier extraction, we could have robotic nurses. Sure, DARPA's current challenges will ultimately help advance all of these, but why not tackle it head on? The saddest part... real healthcare robot advances (like Johnson & Johnson's old iBot wheelchair) are discontinued due to burdensome regulatory environments. Half of Mr. Engleberger's $700,000 could be eaten up by consumer safety certifications." 
"Scaling up from prototype to a mass-produced eldercare product is massively expensive. It's possible to build a prototype home healthcare robot for $700,000. But investor confidence in the business plan and subsequent funding is often more significant than the actual technology. Consider Rethink Robotics. Sure, they're making strides in mass-production of low-cost robots, but their real innovation is discovering a VC-appealing business model to make it happen. And even then... Rethink required more than $60 million to get over the initial hump. Even Kiva (an arguably less-complex robot) required $33 Million in VC funding to scale up before the Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) acquisition. There's just no way to bring such a robot to market for under $700k at this time. Engelberger hedged this by saying he wanted a deep-pocketed partner to handle the burden of production, inventory, marketing, and distribution. And that doesn't even address the hardest part: software." (See below for a outline of the software considerations.)
The eldercare/healthcare marketplace isn't limited to robotic solutions. In fact, there are many competing propositions. Here are a few that come to mind:
  • Convenient apps on PCs and tablets like GrandCare and QuietCare
  • Home robots like iRobot's (NASDAQ:IRBT) vacuums and bathroom and kitchen floor cleaners
  • Multi-sensored kiosks or stations for health monitoring (taking blood pressure, measuring body temperature, heartbeat rate and pulse oximetry, listening for heartbeat irregularities, etc.)
  • Fully-sensored and high-bandwidth houses (Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) Labs)
  • Multiple and single tasked mobile robots to detect people lying on the floor, remind them about taking their medications, provide remote video and audio for caregivers and medical personnel, act as a security robot in the night to detect intrusions, fire and smoke and to call for help, etc.
  • Remote listening stations and dispatch centers
  • Combinations of all of these schemes
RobotDalen projects: left to right: Giraff, Bestic and Zoom
Governmental and other agencies, particularly in countries with socialized medical systems [countries without insurance providers] such as Sweden and Denmark, have stepped in to develop necessary devices where healthcare consumer product companies have yet to tread. For example, RobotDalen, a Swedish public-private consortium has funded the development of needed robotic products such as Bestic, an eating device for those who cannot feed themselves; Giraff, a remote-controlled mobile robot with a camera and monitor providing remote assistance and security; TrainiTest a rehabilitation robot that measures and evaluates the capacity of muscles and then sets the resistance in the robot to adapt to the users individual training needs; and Zoom, an all-terrain, battery-powered four-wheeler intended for people who have difficulty walking. Once fully developed, Zoom will be able to drive up stairs and steeper terrain in a manner that is safe and secure for the driver.

Hector and friend.
Another public-private partnership is the EU-funded $10 million CompanionAble Project which created a robotic assistant for the elderly called Hector. The project integrates Hector to work collaboratively with a smart home and remote control center to provide the most comprehensive and cost efficient support for older people living at home. Although Hector doesn't have any arms, he does have storage space for drinks, keys, and other items and his communication skills have been honed to work intuitive and effectively with seniors. Needed legislation and ethical considerations are also addressed in this very comprehensive P-P project. The four year project, in the final stages of field trials in Holland and Belgium, is now seeking multi-year funding to extend their research before commercialization.
"CompanionAble addresses the issues of social inclusion and homecare of persons suffering from chronic cognitive disabilities prevalent among the increasing European older population. A participative and inclusive co-design and scenario validation approach drives CompanionAble involving care recipients and their close carers as well as the wider stakeholders. This is to ensure end-to-end systemic viability, flexibility, modularity and affordability as well as a focus on overall care support governance and integration with quality of experience issues such as dignity-privacy-security preserving responsibilities fully considered."
In the U.S., funding from the NSF has been focused on concept development projects like the Socially Assistive Robotics project referenced above, and university quality of life projects. Very few have reached the stage where commercialization is warranted.

From left: InTouch Health's RP-VITA remote presence robot; VGo in pediatric out-patient setting; new Double Robotics Double device.
Remote presence robots, which didn't exist when Engelberger talked with BusinessWeek, have recently turned up in a variety of forms -- from simple Skype video chats on a mobility platform (Double Robotics) to serious medical assistance remote presence robots such as provided by the partnership between iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) and InTouch Health , Giraffe (shown above) and VGo Communications' post-op pediatric at-home robots for communication with parents, nurses, doctors and patients. Remote devices with the ability to carry things, similar to Hector (shown above), may be the next breakthrough followed by adding a single arm and a repertoire of tasks which that arm can perform and then, later dual arms and app stores full of programs the robot can follow.

Entrepreneurial activity in the eldercare space is very limited. Hoaloha Robotics, which is in the stealth phase of their development, may have the chops to bring a product to market. Tandy Trower, CEO and Founder, who previously served as the founder and General Manager of the Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) robotics group that created Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio, outlined the design plans for his eldercare robot:
"Beginning with features and functions already commonly included in today’s personal computers and adding autonomous mobility and a few additional components with innovative applications and a human-centric interface design, the Hoaloha design will not only take existing PC experiences directly to the user –wherever they are - , but also open up new ways for individuals to stay connected, informed, and entertained while improving safety and access to remote services." 
"The Hoaloha application framework will also provide integration of discrete technological solutions like biometric devices, remote doctor visits, monitoring and emergency call services, medication dispensers, on-line services, and the increasing number of other products and applications already emerging for the assistive care market." 
"In addition, because the design is also based on wireless PC technology, the Hoaloha solution will provide a bridge to the existing digital and Web-enabled world." 
"Finally, at the heart of the Hoaloha design is its ”human-centric” user interface. Designed to leverage and integrate natural interface modalities like speech, vision, and touch technologies, its interface is designed to be socially interactive and easy to use."
One can only hope... and, like Joe Engelberger, be a bit frustrated with the slow progress thus far.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

FoxBots Being Deployed in China

Foxconn-built robot FoxBot. Source:
Foxconn, the wholly-owned subsidiary of Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision (2317:TW), has begun deploying their own brand of industrial robots to their factory in Jincheng, Shanxi Province, China, according to various reports from China news sources. Shanxi Province is an area where Foxconn is partnering with local governments - spending $16 and $27 million respectively - to build factories and employ 200,000+ local workers. One of those new factories is earmarked to manufacture robots.

The turquoise industrial robot shown above is called a FoxBot and about 10,000 of them have been manufactured and deployed since 2011 into one of the Foxconn factories in Jincheng. Loosely translated from multiple Chinese articles, the FoxBot is described as:
Only can be engaged in some simple and repetitious tasks. Priced at $20,000 to $25,000. There are different versions. Some appear crab-like, others act as lifts, some as pick and place robots. All appear to be capable of precise movements.
One article said that although some robots were already being deployed, progress is slow and that Foxconn will only deliver and install 1/10 of the 300,000 projected for the end of 2012. But there have also been recent news stories about a series of negative incidents similar to the ones 18 months ago that prompted Foxconn to announce plans to launch their own robot-making facility and their intention to deploy 1 million robots by 2014.
  • Workers and security guards got into a tangle which shut one factory down for 24 hours.
  • Chinese labor rights groups complained about underage vocational students being forced to work at Foxconn factories.
  • After a 20 month hiatus, there was another suicide incident at one of the Foxconn plants.
  • A couple of key Foxconn executives left the company.
  • A hospitalized brain-injured worker was "ordered" by Foxconn to leave the hospital. 
In each of these instances, the truth is much less inflammatory than the headlines. Nevertheless, there appears to be a reoccurrence of instances of worker unrest and seemingly unfair labor practices, at least from a Western perspective.

Chinese news sources say that Foxconn has a four-pronged program to alleviate their labor and growth problems, one of which involves the development and deployment of 1 million robots as quickly as possible. At present, Foxconn employs 1.2 million workers, 400,000 of which are directly involved with Apple projects.

It should be mentioned that some of the incendiary headlines for these stories are attention grabbers because of Apple's preeminent status, their successful iPhone and iPad products and their continued use of Foxconn as their principle contract manufacturer. Samsung, Sony, LG, Google and others are all competitive with Apple.


Also in the news, Apple CEO Tim Cook visited China and a Foxconn plant this week on a visit to meet with the Mayor of Beijing about undisclosed issues. State media reported that China's vice premier promised Cook the country would boost intellectual property protection.
"To be more open to the outside is a condition for China to transform its economic development, expand domestic demands and conduct technological innovation," the official Xinhua news agency cited Vice Premier Li Keqiang as saying. 
Apple has relationships with China Telecom and China Unicom to sell its iPhone, with the only other Chinese carrier, China Mobile (the country's biggest operator), also looking to clinch a deal.

All of these decisions and news items play a role in Foxconn's decision to automate much of their Apple production and assembly activities. Some Apple products are designed at the outset for automatic assembly. But the frequency of product design updates and changes also plays a role, since frequent changes mean robots must be reprogrammed to meet the new needs.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

eBee First Product From Parrot/senseFly Investment

In July, the Parrot Group partnered with senseFly, a Swiss start-up and spin-off from the Swiss EPFL, and invested $5.3 million to help senseFly grow. Their initial plan was to develop a high volume manufacturing capability and fund rapid growth and new product development. The eBee is the first such product from that venture. The just announced 3' wingspan eBee can fly for 45 minutes in 45km/hr winds, and will enable users to take their own aerial photos and produce precise ortho-mosaics and 3D models. senseFly has also established an impressive global network of resellers which presently excludes the US (because of FAA regulatory limitations).

senseFly, working with another Parrot Group partner and another EPFL spin-off (with a similarly intentioned $2.5 million equity investment from Parrot to spur growth and development), Pix4D, has developed a suite of software which can create a flight path and take 2D geotagged images and then process them into 3D maps.

Below is an EPFL/Pix4D video displaying additional information about the process of filming, tagging and creating 3D maps and images.

When senseFly's UAVs are allowed into civilian airspace, there are a myriad uses:

  • Aerial photography
  • Mapping
  • Mine and quarry surveys
  • Emergency response
  • Agricultural and cattle monitoring
  • Remote sensing
  • Surveying (general and archeological)
  • Urban and regional planning
  • Infrastructure management
  • Etc.
As civilian airspace opens to drones like those from senseFly, the sky begins to offer unique perspectives to view and understand our environment. One can see a near-term future where images and data can be captured at low cost, anywhere, any time, and without complex infrastructure or long preparation time and transformed into useful management tools, maps and surveys.
“We are witnessing a revolution whereby flying drones are no longer exclusive to the military but are quickly spreading into the civilian world. In 2010, Parrot surprised competitors and fellow researchers alike when they hit the market with their iPhone-piloted quadcopter for filming and gaming. The same year, senseFly revolutionized the job of surveyors by providing fully autonomous flying cameras capable of producing precise 2D and 3D maps within minutes. Both companies are focused on developing very lightweight drones with the strong belief that this is critical to their use by the public at large – far beyond the military”, says Jean-Christophe CEO and co-founder of senseFly.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Another Robotic Frontier: Fast Food

They can't build the machines fast enough to satisfy the demand, particularly from Italian end-users. A1 Concepts Let's Pizza machines are in Europe and soon will be coming to the US. The devices don't just reheat frozen pizzas; they create an authentic 10.5" pizza, made from scratch with fresh ingredients in less than 2-1/2 minutes. The machine mixes dough, rolls it out, adds toppings, cooks the pie and then dispenses it in a take-away box... all in less than 3 minutes!

Cupcake ATMs from Sprinkles Cupcakes have been running so smooth that the ATM cupcake machine will be expanding to other locations. There was a bigger line outside the Beverly Hills store to try the ATM cupcake machine than going inside and buying in-store.

Robotic frozen yogurt and ice cream kiosks are beginning to populate malls, student unions and various public facilities. Robofusion, a South Carolina interactive kiosks manufacturer, has partnered with Sodexo, a large provider of integrated food and facilities management services, to provide Reis & Irvy's frozen yogurt kiosks in various malls and public places including The Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

On the horizon are restaurants with iPad/tablet menues and robotic servers -- there are already experiments like this going on in China -- and noodle cutting, falafel cutting and sushi roll rolling and cutting machines.

Common to all these new devices are simple-to-use order entry and payment screens, the acceptance of currency, coins and credit cards, and the "watch factor," i.e., the ability to see what's going on inside the machine.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Distribution Centers: An Emerging Robotics Frontier

Distribution centers (DCs) are massive warehouses that receive, inspect and store goods for later picking, packing and shipping to end-users, re-distributors or retail outlets. Products can be everything from books, pharmacy goods, clothing, office goods, food, drinks, shoes, produce, household items and pet supplies to diapers. And quantities can be one or two individual units to 20-100+ cases.

Driving the expansion and change in DCs are (1) online sales and consumer expectations of speedy delivery, (2) enhanced data manipulation capabilities, multidimensional processing and integration of new-tech mobile robotics into material handling, (3) proof that goods-to-man methods saves money, reduces labor and increases productivity, and (4) a current need to develop more cost-efficient centers (caused by delays and skittishness to make capital investments during the economic crisis). E-commerce sales are growing at an annual compounded growth rate of 8.5% - double that of supercenters, club and dollar stores. Supermarkets and convenience stores are growing as well. The quantity of materials that are moved daily through DCs is staggering as are the streams of data and algorithm considerations. [Source: Nielsen TDLinx & Nielsen Analytics] 

The immensity and complexity of the supply process can be seen in this video showing how a Giant Eagle supermarket is resupplied from its regional distribution center:


Amazon has and continues to lead e-commerce-driven distribution with their pick-to-cart method (otherwise known as man-to-goods) and their promise of speedy economical delivery. Workers run around and fill carts and deliver them to conveyors where they are transported to packing stations where individual shipments are processed and staged for pickup by FedEx, UPS, etc.. The metrics for this are 160 picks per hour. The video below shows that process.

Kiva Systems disrupted those metrics and increased worker productivity by reversing the man-to-goods process. This method brings the goods to the packer (goods-to-man). As Kiva's success became proven in the field, Amazon acquired Kiva for $775 million and is beginning to install Kiva systems in their new warehouses. It is estimated that the new Kiva metric for Amazon consumer goods is 600 items per hour.

These metrics translate into fewer employees and lower warehouse costs, which include not only the structure but the inside storage and material handling equipment as well. Steve Banker, a consultant at ARC Advisory Group, recently wrote in Logistics Viewpoints:
If you conduct a Google search on “Amazon distribution center,” you come across announcements over the past year for DCs in Virginia, New Jersey, and South Carolina. According to these articles, warehouses costing roughly $50-65 million will employ 1,500 to 2,000 workers. 
But then I came across an article about a new Indiana DC. This DC is costing $150 million and the company is only promising 1,000 new workers. Could this be one of the new warehouses that will be using Kiva? The employment numbers seem to add up. This DC will employ at least one third fewer workers. 
European DCs tend to be smaller than those in the US where massive centers for Wallmart and Amazon often exceed 1 million sq ft. Amazon has said that it will be filling its new 1 million sq ft distribution centers with Kiva robots. According to their financial reports, they are opening 12 new Kiva-equipped centers in 2012 with more planned for 2013. That is a lot of Kiva mobile robots, and this demand will surely keep them busy building and integrating those devices and their related software systems into Amazon's distribution scheme. In fact, Kiva has already laid off most of their sales and marketing staff but has increased their support staff to assist their new owner (and biggest client). As Amazon leads the consumer products industry to same day delivery, Kiva robots help give them that flexibility. [One-day turnaround isn't unique to Amazon; it is often a necessity. Think produce: vegetables, fruits, baked goods. These goods regularly move in and out of DCs within 24 hours.]

Kiva's acquisition by Amazon has created a void in innovative material handling technology just at the time when companies that had put off building or improving their DCs because of the economic crisis are now ready to invest again. Kiva's low cost for warehouse shelving and speed of installation in bare-boned facilities are far cheaper and faster than any other method offered.

However, Kiva-equipped distribution centers aren't the only methods available for handling robotic-assisted fulfillment. There are many new technologies as well as older-style methods now augmented with various robotics to handle the myriad types of warehoused goods. Amazon, Zappos and other consumer sales companies warehouse and ship small-quantity consumer items. Food distribution and intra-company distribution centers process on the case level. One east coast DC for a chain of groceries regularly processes 20 million cases per week. DCs not only focus on getting their goods in and out of the system but also concentrate on maximizing productivity and keeping their labor costs as low as possible.

Handling, distribution, transport and delivery - and the amortization of DC setup charges - often represent more cost than raw materials and manufacturing combined.  Consequently, warehousing and material handling are a big business for hundreds of different types of companies: conveyors, rollers, racks, vision systems, hoists, shelving, electric motors, slides, barcode readers, printers, ladders, gantries, tugs, forklifts, autonomous lifts and tugs, skids, totes, carts, and software systems of all types, to name just a few. Big players in the field include Intelligrated, Egemin Automation, Fromm, Daifuku Webb, Adept, Frog AGV Systems, Seegrid, Fuji, Edict, Omega Lift, Nordock, Interlake Mecalux, Automated Packaging, Itoh Denki, etc. Most of these vendors augment the man-to-goods model.

There are three companies transitioning to offer goods-to-man functionality: Symbotic, Swisslog and Dematic. The latter two have been in the material handling business for quite some time and have introduced many new robotic solutions. Swisslog is publicly-traded (SLOG:SW); the other two are privately held. All three of these vendors emphasize maximizing warehouse density which can be seen by level upon level (multiple vertical rows) of floor to ceiling racks.


Symbotic's Matrix Rover travels along shelf rows picking and restocking as required but can also operate autonomously on warehouse floors.

Symbotic, previously named CasePick Systems, is a recent spin-off from C&S Wholesale Grocers, the largest grocery supply company in the US. For the past seven years C&S has been the test bed for the development of Symbotic's line of products which include floor to ceiling high-density shelving and racks, storage and retrieval software, hardware systems, palletizer robots and robotic rovers. Now, as a separate company, they are a provider to C&S as well as other companies.

Symbotic focuses on handling skids and cases rather than on open-box or individual items. In an automated case/pallet warehouse, utilizing available storage area, including height as efficiently as possible, is the goal. Symbotic attempts to maximize usable space by providing and/or integrating all of the shelving, conveyors, stackers, robotic systems, robotic rovers and software, often reaching 17 rows high with the number of aisles limited only by the square footage of the warehouse. It's like multi-level chess except on 17 levels! 

Guided by extraordinarily complex software, rovers speed along their row to pick or replenish cases of goods. Once a case is grabbed, the rovers take their goods to a Symbotic-invented device which enables the transfer of cases from multiple rovers at all levels of the shelving structure simultaneously, to a device for getting them down to floor level and then to a conveyor/tug system. The material is then moved to a station where Symbotic integrates heavy-duty Fanuc robotic arms in a palletizing process which then stacks the goods for shipment. 


Left to right: Swisslog's AutoStore drop-down rovers, Tornado lifts and SmartCarriers.

Swisslog builds modularized conveyors, stacker cranes, row rovers (called carriers) and autonomous tugs as well as their new AutoStore robots. Swisslog can handle open-case light goods and pallet/case systems. Swisslog provides European style material handling often characterized by high capital and operating costs and lots of mechanical devices. They enjoy very high productivity and space utilization in return.

Swisslog's new AutoStore rovers race along the top of modular aluminum storage racks which are located just below ceiling level. The rovers reach down to get bins of targeted goods which are vertically stacked on top of each other. Then they race to a lift/crane which drops the goods down and conveys them to pick and pack stations and/or pallets for shipment. Once the bins have been picked, they are returned to the stack in the same manner.

Swisslog, as its name implies, is European and as such, must always be able to handle unique existing space considerations, often having to adapt to some very unique building configurations. Swisslog claims that their methods maximizes both vertical and horizontal space enabling them to process up to 1,000 picks per hour.


Dematic goods-to-person shuttles are located at every level in all aisles and are
serviced by high-speed elevators where material is lowered down to processing stations.
Dematic, headquartered in Luxembourg, is an established European style provider and integrator of logistics and material handling solutions. They offer almost every type of storage solution imaginable and provide distribution and handling for B2B and B2C as well as grocery, apparel, food and beverage and general merchandise.

Dematic provides conveyors, tugs, sorters, lifts and a variety of software for warehouse management, order fulfillment, RFID and SAP solutions and transport maximization. They use all of the different picking methods: pick by voice, pick by light, RF picking, etc.

Their most recent product addition is their row Multishuttle, a robotic rover that travels each row in each aisle in the warehouse picking orders and delivering them to a lift which sends them onward to a packing station.


As is the case in most robotics, smart software is critical to its success. Imagine the algorithms involved in resource allocation to determine which product goes in which bin; which order gets assigned to which station; which pod comes to which station; which robot should get which pod. Then compound that with the problems of integrating that solution into a SAP, IBM, Oracle, Manhattan Associates, or Red Prairie fulfillment system. Then add customized delivery optimization solutions (such as sequencing skids in a truck to delivery routes and sequencing the contents of skids to how they are offloaded in the store) to the mix and you have some really complex software packages.

All of the companies mentioned in this article (Amazon, Kiva, Symbotic, C&S, Dematic and Swisslog) blend techniques from AI, controls systems, machine learning, operations research and other software and engineering disciplines into their mobile robotic platform. All are focused on transforming fulfillment to the goods-to-man methodology because of the increased productivity gains and all are pioneering as they go because goods-to-man is new territory, software-wise.


This article originated as a profile of one company as they began to robotically augment distribution centers. But, as I gathered information, the story has morphed into a review of why Kiva Systems' innovative methods - the goods-to-man methodology - is far superior to other older styles of fulfillment. These older style man-to-goods methods are characterized by serious labor costs, heavy turnover, high cost shelving, conveyors, lifts, and transport and other systems to get targeted materials to a picker/packer or palletizing operation. Robotics, if used at all, is used to augment the worker's reach, mobility and lifting. The new-tech companies profiled above (Swisslog, Symbotic and Dematic) have begun to implement goods-to-man systems incorporating old and new style racks and shelving and all seem to be doing the same thing: building multi-layer shelving upon which rovers troll the levels and aisles picking their stuff and shuttling it off to an elevator which sends it via conveyors or otherwise to pick/pack or palletizing stations, all controlled by colossally-complex proprietary software.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Rethink Robotics Launches Baxter the Robot

By Frank Tobe, editor/publisher, The Robot Report

Yesterday was the launch of Rethink Robotics' Baxter shop assistant robot.

Many reporters, including myself, saw Baxter at Rethink's headquarters in Boston in the past two months but were embargoed from writing about it until today, the launch date.

Looking at the stories - as they appear all over the web and in news print, three stand out, in my opinion, at the head of the class:
  1. the Rethink Robotics press release 
  2. the NY Times article and video by John Markoff 
  3. and the in-depth story in Spectrum by Ackerman and Guizzo
Markoff's story uses everyday language and is directed toward a wide audience - the kind of multi-layered audience, multi-interests audience unique to The NY Times; the Spectrum article is for engineers and roboticists.

As an aside, Markoff's article makes me ever more aware of the difference between a blogger/writer and a paid reporter from a reputable news source. John's article made me wish I could write like him. I saw what he saw, got the same demo, played with the machine similarly, heard the same details. But I came away disappointed.
  • John saw, as I did, that both arms don't work together. He wrote that they will in the next version. I couldn't imagine them bringing the product out without the arms working together (although they are aware of each other's location and can avoid hitting itself).
  • John saw, as I did, that it was big but he just described it as a 9' span that, with the stand, brings Baxter eye-level with a standing worker. I saw it as big and clunky.
  • John heard, as I did, that the price was $22,000 yet Brooks had been touting an affordable cost of less than $15,000 for a long time and cited polls that said that the price point for new shop tools was $15,000 or less. John just wrote the facts and let it go at that.
  • We both saw that the grasping mechanism was a two-fingered plastic device and heard that, in the future, third party mechanisms could be quickly retooled to enable Baxter to do different tasks. I thought this was an awkward solution and found that Baxter could only lift 5 pounds and didn't have enough torque to push/screw in a screw which, in my opinion, would be a necessary task for any shop assistant. John just showed what it could do with it's two fingers.
  • John described the need of small shops to augment their workers with robots which can do the dull, repetitive parts of their daily work much easier, thereby freeing up the worker to do higher-level tasks. But he didn't indicate that this version of Baxter is far away from offering that capability. Nor did he talk about other promises and expectations missing from this launch, namely an app store where Baxter's training can be transferred to other places where other Baxters are installed.
  • We both saw that Baxter's speed was slow and its precision not too precise but John just reported what he saw; I wondered how long it would take to speed up the processing and enhance the mechanisms to be more precise.
I could go on with the comparisons but, bottom line, John Markoff deserves to work for the NY Times because he reports things as they are. Opinion and spin are left to bloggers and PR people.

Markoff only writes a robotics story every month or so; Ackerman and Guizzo write every week or so. But every day there are hundreds of stories that need sifting to see whether they fall into News or Views and if News, whether the article is applicable for our readers as they do as we do: track the business of robotics.

I wrote this meandering message because of a quote I think appropriate about Baxter: George Carlin, the late comedian said: "Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist."


Other stories about Baxter and Rethink Robotics from reliable sources:

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Frank Review of the movie 'Robot & Frank'

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

My friends have been kidding me for months about the movie Robot & Frank (because my name is Frank, I've got gray hair, and I'm way into robots -- I research, edit and publish The Robot Report and this blog). I have a Photoshop'd poster with my picture instead of Frank's since, as news of the movie trickled out, they likened me to the crotchety character played by Frank Langella.

Actor Frank Langella on the left; robot analyst Frank Tobe on the right.

Finally, a few days ago, a group of us went to see it and, although it was sad and sweet, and generally a fun and entertaining movie to watch, it was a disappointment to me on many levels.

The story is about an older guy who lives alone in a rural area. Frank is grumpy, slovenly and abusive, except with the local librarian, whom he likes. His son drives a long distance to check up on him once a week and the visits aren't pleasant. His daughter is off in some foreign land taking photos. His ex-wife is long gone.

The story brightens when the son gives Frank a robot to help take care of him. It is purposed to lead him away from his curmudgeon state (which we later learn is dementia) toward a more healthy life. Frank, who at first hates the idea, finds that the robot is trainable and can do some things better than he can, like pick a lock or crack the combination on a safe. This excites him to once again do what he used to do: be a jewel thief. It's a mundane Robin Hood type plot but the two principal actors (Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon) make it a better film because they play their roles so convincingly. I don't want to tell more of the story because the movie is worth seeing.

From a robot enthusiast's point of view, however, the movie left a lot to be desired. First (and I hate to break this to you), the robot wasn't a robot after all. It may have looked like Honda's Asimo, but it was really Rachael Ma dressed up in a robot costume made by a Hollywood effects company (Altrerian). She walked and moved just like Asimo and moved her head empathically during periods of dialogue but it wasn't even a speaking part for her; a male actor read the lines that were the robot's voice.

Second, regarding the robot's voice, the director ended up printing out all of the robot lines in sequence and having Peter Sarsgaard read them straight through without watching the scenes. It yielded the best balance and consistency for their goal of robot-like speech. If it ended up sounding a little inhuman, that was fine.

The real issues about ethical, psychological and social concerns of a robot providing assistance and life coaching for a person with serious aging and psychological issues, or about a robot assisting or participating in illegal activities with that person were only lightly touched upon. Instead the issues were defined by the paradigm of living alone or in a residential care facility.

When asked by a reporter from The Christian Science Monitor about the ethical question of having robots take care of the elderly and replace human caregivers, director Jake Schreier replied:
I don't have an answer for that. I mean, we certainly touch on it. I think the key for [screenplay writer Christopher] Ford and I was to sort of make it ... you could call it a "future agnostic" movie. This is in the sense that it's not saying that robots are going to kill us, and it's not saying that they're the answer to all our problems. I think there are some issues with them, and there are some amazing things that they can do—and the future is like that. I think it's important to not be reflexively afraid of the future, to try to take in what's coming and try to look at all sides of it and see what the positives and negatives are. Hopefully the film lets you have that distance and form an opinion or let you have your own ideas about it, but it isn't leading you too strongly down one path or the other.
In another interview that appeared in The Huffington Post, the reporter asked Schreirer and Ford how they decided on the simple design of the robot, who looks a lot like Honda's walking ASIMO robot, and whether they ever considered other designs that were more futuristic and high tech.
JS: The segment of robot design aimed at elder care seems to be oddly focused on these little white spacemen. It's not just the ASIMO, Toyota has a similar one too, and there are others. We just felt it made sense to stay in that vein. I think they benefit from their simplicity -- it allows us to project more emotion onto them.

CF: The robot always had that kind of design, even from the original short I did in film school. I was taken by the image of this tiny little space suit-looking man walking around through a dusty old cottage. I know Jake always liked that image and it was the kernel that we tried to stay true to when we expanded it into a feature.
After the movie, as the credits rolled, there were cameo videos running alongside the credits showing many service robots doing bits and pieces of home or assistive tasks. Some of them were caring for the elderly, or interacting with real people playing chess, or cleaning up and doing various tasks. Each video clip was known to me for its limited present-day capability but hopeful for a more efficient and flexible near-term future similar to the futuristic robot in Robot & Frank.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Credit Suisse Picks 7 Automation/Robotics Stocks

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Max Nisen of Business Insider wrote recently of a list of seven stock picks discovered in a Credit Suisse report on long term trends. One of those trends was increasing global automation (particularly in China) and the seven picks relate to companies poised to benefit from those needs.

The article and list prompted a series of quick personal opinions concerning almost all of their selections which I thought might be interesting to followers of the robotics industry.

Below are the seven Credit Suisse stock picks with a brief description of what the companies do, my best understanding of Credit Suisse's reason for selecting the stock for the list, and my opinions as to the particular company.

1.  Siemens AG (NYSE:SI)
CS Reason: low PE
Source: Siemens Annual Report
Siemens derives 31% of its profits from factory automation in which they provide everything but the robots: control and monitoring systems, inspection and vision systems, sensor systems, power supplies, manufacturing and warehousing systems, etc. Siemens also makes consumer products and provides transportation systems and health care and hospital products.
FT Comment: Because Siemens is into so many different activities, they are a good conglomerate but not necessarily a good bet for automation and robotics. Their stock moves to a different drummer then a company that is devoted only to robotics such as, for example, FANUC. It may be a good conservative bet for a long-term hold... if you want to invest in conglomerates. Other conglomerates with some involvement in robotics include Textron (NYSE:TST) and Teledyne (NYSE:TDY) for example.
2.  Rockwell Automation (NYSE:ROK)
CS Reason: possible acquisition target
Source: Rockwell Automation Annual Report
Rockwell provides automation power, control and information systems. Many factory robot systems include Rockwell control boxes to drive their robots and integrate their activities into the larger factory system. Rockwell and its subsidiaries also provide servos, power systems and sensors.
FT Comment: Up until recently the computing power necessary to compute the complex math of robotic movement and control the multiple motors that drive a robot were offloaded into separate boxes for that purpose. Rockwell has been a leader in this field for a long time. But with the cost and size of CPUs dropping and the need for mobility in all the newer-tech robots, Rockwell may face an uncertain future and a diminishing share of the robotics ancillary products and control systems marketplace.
3.  FANUC Corp. (TYO:6954)
CS Reason: Has 20% of global robot market
FANUC is a Japanese company mainly engaged in factory automation equipment including CNC systems, laser products and all forms of robots and robotics. They just completed a new "black" factory for the production of robots for sale in China.
FT Comment: FANUC is predominantly a robotics company and hasn't suffered too much from the tsunami disaster. They have been ramping up because there is great demand for their robots and systems in China as well as the rest of the world. Unless there emerges a Chinese competitor in the near term -- such as Foxconn might become -- FANUC has the potential for success over the next many years. Other robot manufacturers similar to FANUC include ABB (NYSE:ABB), KUKA (ETR:KU2), Yaskawa Electric (TYO:6506) and Adept (NASDAQ:ADEP).
4.  Delta Electronics (TPE:2308)
CS Reason: Competitive in Chinese market with high operating profits
Delta Electronics is a Taiwan-based supplier of power supplies, power switching devices, servo motors, and video and electromechanical products. Industrial automation products represent 8% of revenue but 20+% of profits.
FT Comment: Taiwan-based Delta Electronics' motors are a staple in China and barring anything unforeseen, they are a good bet to continue that trend. However, industrial automation products are a small portion of their gross revenue, are considered a commodity product, and consequently may not be an important component of the value of the company. It may be an interesting company for other purposes, but not automation.
5.  Keyence (TYO:6861)
CS Reason: Will benefit from aging societies investment in automation
Source: Keyence Annual Report
Keyence designs and produces sensors, vision and laser imaging and range-finding technologies used in robot mobility and factory automation applications and vision systems.
FT Comment: Microsoft and PrimeSense blindsided many of the laser-scanner companies with their new-tech low-cost scanners and eloquent software. The marketplace now expects that low cost but, at present, cannot meet its needs for scanning with Kinect-like devices. [This is changing however with better and better software.] That, combined with a slow recovery from the twin economic and tsunami crises have hurt Keyence, a Japan-based company. Even though they are cash rich and profitable at present, they haven't fully recovered from the economic crisis and their annual reports don't seem to indicate research efforts that will enable lower cost technologies in the future. Currently there is sharp pressure on pricing and Keyence, Optech, V-Gen, Velodyne and other LIDAR and laser-scanning manufacturers are beginning to feel it. A few of these companies are embracing Kinect-like devices to supplement their product lines but I see the automation marketplace finding newer technologies at much lower cost from newly emerging companies to fill this very necessary vision/mobility task. Notable alternative vendors providing vision systems for robotics and automation include Cognex (NASDAQ:CGNX) and Raytheon (NYSE:RTN). The biggest and most known provider of laser scanners is SICK AG, a privately held company.
6.  Mitsubishi Electric (TYO:6503)
CS Reason: Market leader in computers that control automated production machines
Source: Mitsubishi Electric Annual Report
Mitsubishi Electric designs and manufactures heavy industrial electrical equipment as well as power modules, consumer electronics and robots. 20-30% of their operating profits are derived from the sale of factory automation equipment.
FT Comment: Mitsubishi has been a market leader in industrial robotics and the computers that control them. And they have a big and well-respected sales presence in China. They do not have much of a presence in the emerging service robotics sector however, and this suggests that they will do well as an industrial robotics provider but may not capture market share in either the emerging SME or service robotics markets.
7.  TECO (TPE:1504)
CS Reason: Expanding 10% market share of motors and servos
Teco AC motor drives
TECO is a Taiwanese manufacturer of all types of electrical motors and electrical control products including those used in and with robotics and factory automation. They also have a consumer products line and a big market share in China.
FT Comment: Robots and factory automation systems require all sorts of equipment and systems to do their tasks. Electrical motors and their control systems are integral to that process. But there are many providers and TECO is just one -- Yaskawa Electric and ABB are names more familiar to the robotics world that provide similar servos and electrical equipment and systems. To some extent, this is a commodity business with ever-lower prices and global competition; not a particularly appealing market for the long term.
* * * 

What I See:

Frank Tobe
The Robot Report
The opinions expressed above are based on what I see happening in factory automation, industrial robotics and other types of robotics involved in the production, movement and handling of products over the next few years.
Industrial robotics as we know it -- caged arms welding, painting and manipulating long streams of mass-produced automotive and electrical goods -- will continue to grow at a healthy pace as more of the world stays competitive by automating their factories. The major players in this field are robot manufacturers KUKA, ABB, Yaskawa Motoman, Mitsubishi, FANUC and providers of ancillary systems and equipment like Rockwell Automation, Delta Electronics, Keyence, Cognex and others. Many research firms have projected steady growth for this sector at 3-5% CAGR for the rest of this decade.
Other types of factory automation may not be as visible as a robotic arm; instead it might be a process control or material handling system that is robotic in nature. This robotic-like form of automation and industrial robotics are both moving toward produce-on-demand systems which require great mechanical flexibility and complex software and systems. This is a moving target which progresses as technology does -- literally changing day by day -- and utilizes advanced sensors, fast computer processing, massive data manipulation and complex algorithms. 
It's not just visible robots but whole robotic-like automation systems that are enabling companies to compete with low-cost labor from off shore. This is true even in countries like China which is beginning to upgrade their product quality and worker efficiency while coping with higher wages -- and they are doing this through automating as much as they can.
Far more companies are beginning to automate to stay competitive than just big factories. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are propelling the service robotics segment of the robotics industry forward to new capabilities and expectations. SMEs need robots that are plug and play, easily trainable, have vision capabilities, are super flexible and safe to work alongside -- just like their iPads and apps from the App Store. Thus manufacturers of stand-alone control systems and companies that provide systems integration may not be as needed in the SME marketplace as they were (and for the time being are) for big factory robotics. New co-robot manufacturers like Rethink Robotics, Redwood Robotics and Universal Robots (Denmark), and software developers like Universal Robotics (US) and their Neocortex control system for 3D sensing of random objects and then integrating that data into user systems (e.g., into Yaskawa's Motoman 2-armed robots) -- all privately held -- may become disruptive and take away market share from the bigger companies.
Up until recently, neither vision-enabled systems nor mobility in manufacturing has been economically feasible, but that is changing. Mobile robots today move things from here to there and can be summoned and instructed by iPads. Buyers expect that mobile robotic devices be self-contained and encapsulate their various systems within the device; again, no need for stand-alone control systems or systems integration except, perhaps, in the Cloud. And vision-enabled robotic systems are proliferating and making it possible to get more from existing robots. 
Source: Tesla Motors
Case in point is Tesla Motors which uses multiple tools for their robots to allow them to do a quick tool changes and perform multiple functions, e.g., welding, riveting, bonding and installing a component, yet the core robots are old-style fixed-to-the-floor KUKA, Fanuc and Fronius robots and mobile SmartCarts from Motion Controls.
Almost every non-industrial robotic system (which, for lack of a better term is presently called Service Robotics) involved in making, moving or handing products, has the expectation of mobility, safety, vision, trainability without programming, and great flexibility. That is where the industry seems to be heading and the industrial players are slowly transitioning to be able to provide for that need. The companies mentioned above are beginning that transition -- but not very fast because they have a healthy and profitable growing industrial market already. Perhaps newer more adventurous companies will move more quickly to capture this market segment.
There are publicly-traded exciting companies out there that will likely benefit from the trend toward automation. 3D printer companies like Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) and 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) will play a key role in this emerging market sector but privately held companies like MakerBot may register to go public and give them some competition. Kiva Systems and their innovative warehousing system was recently acquired by Amazon (the acquisition occurred in lieu of Kiva going public). This reminded me how important Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) is in providing material handing in addition to being an online sales force. To quote Bruce Welty in the Huffington Post:
During the California Gold Rush, there were many fortunes made and lost but one of the more enduring successes was Levi-Strauss, a clothier to all miners. Levi's never had to worry about which miners were going to discover gold; they all needed pants. In the New American Economy, these trends all converge around advanced fulfillment capabilities. Amazon has invested in its fulfillment capability for just that reason. The "Levi-Strauss-like" opportunity of today is in Fulfillment or, more specifically, Robotic Fulfillment.
Finally, Credit Suisse didn't mention other areas for automation and there are many. One example is hospital automation -- a big market for pill dispensing robots, mobile tugs to deliver linens, meals, trash and medicines, autonomous cleaners of all types and remote presence robots. Three public companies of note are Swisslog (SW:SLOG), Adept (NASDAQ:ADEP) and iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) and two at-present privately-held companies are InTouch Health and Aethon.