From Niche to Mainstream
Basic factory robots have already been around for 40 years, but in the past they have been limited by their relatively high costs and restricted capabilities. However, a continued rise in computing power, along with a fall in computing costs, have meant that robots today are faster, more flexible and cheaper than ever before.
These advances have led automation and robotics to the cusp of widespread adoption across a vast range of manufacturing, commercial and consumer applications. We strongly believe we have just passed the chasm. In the next decade, we will see the mass of early adopters increasing exponentially.
The 19th and 20th centuries have been full of technological advances. It is now hard to look back and to imagine a world without electricity, phones, cars or computers. The one thing we can see is the speed of these advances. The actual first steam-powered vehicle was designed in the late 1600s, but it took us 200 years until we saw the first train.
In the late 1800's we started switching from steam power to gasoline which allowed us to build cars and airplanes. In the 1920s, assembly lines were used to mass-produce cars. In less than 100 years, they are no longer considered a luxury good, but a necessity. At the same time, we have developed air transportation. We became able not only to fly, but to go to space. In 1943, IBM believed the world did not need more than 5 computers. 30 years later, the first personal computers were released on the market. Today, we all have one in our pockets and it is capable of connecting us to any person we want in the world.
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We are not sure what the future really holds. But we can see the speed of these revolutions are increasing and it pushes the boundaries of our imagination. Robotics, Automation and AI is the industry 4.0 and the next revolution. Robots continue to evolve, becoming more autonomous and flexible in their ability to learn. The increased use of robotics and automation is fueled by manufacturers' drive towards real time interaction and information sharing between all parts of their factories, their suppliers and their customers. Our vision is confirmed by most of the consulting firms, e.g. McKinsey released analyses expecting this theme to be worth up to $14 Trillion by 2025.
Additive Manufacturing, aka 3D printing is starting to play an even more significant part in the industrial manufacturing process. Today's printers are already magnitudes faster than those from even a few years ago.
The ability to add color, different materials and even vary the flexibility within the same 3D printed object increases the possibilities. The freedom, the easiness and the speed changed it from a prototyping machine in to a mass production tool.
Direct Metal Laser Sintering (3D metal Printing) has been extensively used in jet and rocket engine manufacturing.
Plastic 3D printing has been used in healthcare to create models of patient organs pre-surgery to help surgeons visualise the procedures beforehand.
Associated photo: Carbon 3D printer shown during a TED conference.
Agriculture is one of the most interesting end markets for Robotics and Automation. Many tasks are repetitive and have low levels of deviation and variance, such as picking apples from an orchard or ploughing fields in different weather conditions.
The real complications comes with the 'selective' harvests, where to replicate a human, a robot would need to use sensors to individually choose which fruits are ready for harvest. We believe technologies to rival human labour are 5 to10 years away.
You can start seeing various systems of cameras integrated onto tractors or drones capable of inspecting fields to find sick leaves or weeds. This would enable the farmer to treat the plants before the sickness spreads, or target the weeds individually. This can reduce the use of pesticide for the farmer and yield healthier products for the consumer.
Associated photo: Case IH autonomous tractor from Autonomous Solutions Inc.
We believe there is a strong misunderstanding and a misuse of the term, a great disparity between the idea and what we actually see.
Most of the time, we are looking at machine learning (ML) and not AI. ML compares and optimizes a solution from huge datasets. This yields solutions for very complex problems that humans alone, or traditional algorithms struggle with. ML algorithms however are limited to the specific domains they were built for.
ML and AI are being introduced into the workforce as a collaborative role. They are not the final decision makers, but are used as another tool in a toolkit. For example, ML and computer vision has been extensively applied to radiology, and offers physicians more data and insight into making well informed decisions.
Associated photo: Microsoft AI Cloud Material
One of the biggest robotics led economic and social changes in the near future will be the arrival of the fully autonomous (self-driving) vehicle. A world full of self driving cars, planes and boats is around the corner. The potential benefits are huge, ranging from a vast cut in automotive accident rates to more efficient cars themselves and greater mobility options for people of all ages at costs significantly reduced compared to today's price.
Billions are currently being invested into making autonomous cars and trucks a reality. Both traditional car makers such as BMW and Toyota and new entrants like Dyson and Apple are trying to catch the train currently led by Tesla and Google.
There are investment opportunities not only with the OEM's, but also with the new technology supply chain in software and artificial intelligence systems used to control the vehicles.
Associated photo: Waymo Jaguar Land Rover partnership autonomous vehicle
Aka "Co-Bots" are smaller, lighter and cheaper than typical industrial robots, as they are made to work alongside humans.
You no longer need a programmer to set up these machines, you simply show the co-bot what you expect to be done. The co-bot then using its sensors reproduces the movements and even has capacity to take into consideration small variations of the task.
Most importantly co-bots have safety systems incorporated which allow them to work side-by-side with a human without the need for safety barriers. These properties make robotics a viable alternative even for small companies.
These robots are a perfect example of new systems that will be implemented in factories. Previously, manufacturers had to make a choice. Either, the high production process with no flexibility handled by machines, or the low production with a high flexibility handled by humans. Now they have an intermediate solution.
Associated photo: ABB YuMi collaborative robot
Consumer robotics started entering our houses slowly 10 years ago. In 2010, home automation, a.k.a. domotics, became very popular, the concept of a connected home becoming increasingly appealing. It varied from having a control panel for your whole house, to a robot vacuum.
We are now encountering much more sophisticated systems. Some systems learn our behavior, and are capable to adapt from it, i.e. managing the temperature of your home with Nest. It allows us to reduce our electricity consumption and to increase our quality of life.
2017 Amazon made the news with the Amazon Key, a system that would automatically open the door for the person delivering your packages. Of course they have made sure this system is secured and involves a camera and a digital lock for your house.
Associated photo: iRobot Braava m6 autonomous mopping robot
The most common way we usually envision drones are for delivery of various goods and delivery in the medical industry.
Drones became known for the breathtaking cinematography they have enabled. However, they have other commercial and industrial applications. Our advisor and world renown expert, Dr. Mirco Kovac, sees a future where they will perform inspection, surveying and construction.
They will come in all shapes and sizes that can be deployed in water or in the air. They will work autonomously in environments which may be difficult to reach and/or are dangerous for humans to work in.
Dr. Kovac is envisioning a future where a swarm of robots could 3D print buildings. He is also working on drones capable of working both under water and in air. They will be used for construction, to monitor pollution and sea temperature or even help conduct search and rescue missions.
Associated photo: Cinematography drone, photo by Ville Hyvönen
Robotics have and will continue to drive manufacturing costs down.
Worldwide about 10% of manufacturing tasks are automated with an average of 66 robots per 10,000 workers. This compares to the Japanese automotive industry who invested strongly on automation and has over 1,500 robots per 10,000 employees.
The call for robotics and automation in the manufacturing industry is very strong. Modern industry faces rising wage bills, a shortage of skilled labour and the perennial need to cut waste and increase efficiency. With the falling cost of computing power and their increasing ability to adapt and perform more complicated tasks, robots are the long-term answer to many of the headwinds.
Associated photo: Tesla Model S automated factory line
Robotics is already making a big impact in the medical sector. Innovation ranges from robotic assisted surgical procedures, to automated pharmacies, to the use of AI in helping to diagnose and predict disease.
The market for medical robotics and computer assisted surgical equipment could reach $18 billion in 2022 according to Grand View Research.
They are already making a big impact with robotic assisted surgical systems such as Intuitive Surgical's Da Vinci System. This system takes the input from a surgeon at a console to manipulate robotic arms which can then perform minimally invasive operations. It has proven to result in faster recovery rates, fewer complications and fewer errors. There have been well over 3 million robot assisted surgeries before 2016. Every 60 seconds a procedure is started using a Da Vinci Robot.
The newer models have automated features. These include simple task, such as removing blood or stitching.
Associated photo: Da Vinci Xi laparoscopic surgical robot
Industries around the world are seeking to increase the levels of automation within their supply chains, to decrease costs, increase flexibility and in some cases even offer customers a completely new set of services. Robotics and automation systems will be increasingly used in logistics from warehousing and order fulfilment to delivery.
The concept of automation in a warehouse is nothing new with various systems having been around for 30 years. However today's technology along with internet based ordering systems pioneered by companies such as Amazon and Ocado have seen an explosion in online shopping over the last 10 years. The concept has now firmly moved to food retail which accounts for 50% of retail spending globally but which brings its own unique challenges such as the need for refrigeration.
Associated photo: Ocado automated warehouse
As in the industrial revolution, changes are sometimes scary, but they are always based on a new technology and are in need of new tools. As the number of autonomous systems increases rapidly throughout the world so does the need for components critical to their success.
As we have seen, many of the autonomous vehicles are using various sorts of sensors. One of the most popular is the Laser Radar or "lidar" (associated photo).
These technologies are not only used in autonomous vehicles. They are also used in areospace, drones, super computers and more.
Associated photo: Luminar Lidar
You might wonder why we are talking about software when we spoke earlier about AI. We decided to make a differentiation between the 2 mainly because of the market size, the applications and the R&D investment level. You can find many cases of software that helps automate a company without any use of AI.
As soon as you add some level of AI it becomes a completely different product. If we take the example of a supermarket, a bar code and a scanner allowed to automate the cash register and to reduce the errors made when typing a price. Today, we find shops appearing without a cashier or a cash register. You can simply walk in, pick up the goods you would like and walk out. This is only one example.
Associated photo: Dassault Systems Solidworks computer aided design software with engine model