Robots have long been used in industrial settings. There was a time when they were confined to safety cages in industrial facilities, programmed to execute one task successfully and repeatedly. Their role was to make high volumes of goods more speedily and inexpensively. However, technological advances are unleashing robots out of their cases, releasing them to perform new tasks, in new industries, and with added benefits. Robots are making their way from manufacturing to industries ranging from financial services to retail and are ascending onto the agenda of customer experience, strategy, product leaders, and marketing.
Technological advancements are paving the path to a new generation of smarter, more mobile, and more flexible robots. They are programmed in such a way that they can perform varied tasks in unstructured environments and with humans. Some can navigate terrestrial routes, while others can fly. These robots are changing the overall structure of the business, including manufacturing operations and workforce models, and becoming widespread in the healthcare sector. Furthermore, they are starting to gain greater adoption in non-traditional industries such as banking and retail, food and beverages, and hospitality. In the U.S., several homes have robots for performing household chores.
Researchers and analysts categorize the robotics industry in various ways. Robots are segmented as per their primary use: commercial, social, industrial, military, and entertainment. Apart from them, two emerging robot categories, such as cobots and service robots, are gaining a lot of popularity in manufacturing facilities and industrial settings. Cobots can work along with people, augmenting their capabilities rather than replacing them. Service robots, on the other hand, consist of medical robots, guided vehicles, field robots, and drones.
Traditional industrial robots account for the biggest share of the overall robotics market. In 2019, robot manufacturers sold about 300,000 units worth USD 12 billion, out of which 9,000 were cobots. Service robots comprise a relatively small share of the market, and manufacturers sold about 130,000 of them, worth USD 5 billion, in 2016. However, the market is witnessing a surge in the sales of next-gen robots. According to a venture capital firm, cobots and service robots will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 61 percent and 34 percent, respectively. In the next few years, next-gen robots may completely replace traditional industrial robots.
Nowadays, robots are emerging from their usual roles and stepping into new ones. This is because: technological advancements are bestowing them with powerful capabilities and making them easier to operate. Cognitive technologies, advanced sensors, batteries, and actuators play a significant role in enhancing their skills.
Robots feed on the data they receive from the environment and, in turn, aim to alter their environment. In this manner, robots demonstrate the last stage of what tech giant Deloitte has considered as a physical-to-digital-to-physical loop: the jump from the digital environment back to action in the physical environment. This is known as Industry 4.0, in the context of manufacturing. Robots are not just limited to the manufacturing world, but they are making a significant impact outside of manufacturing as well.
Next-gen robots are easier to configure and use compared to traditional industrial robots. Advances in technology, including robotic positioning systems, embedded vision systems, and sophisticated behavior software, allow workers to train the robots. For example, some robots can be trained just by moving them and instructing them where they are expected to go or perform different tasks. FANUC, a robotics company, builds and assembles cloud-connected industrial robots that use a form of machine learning known as reinforcement learning to train themselves.
Few new-generation robots are agile. Technologies such as machine learning and computer vision help these robots identify objects and train them. Increased agility is expanding in applications in warehousing & distribution, surgery, and food preparation. Kindred, a robotics startup, combines the power of computer vision, human supervision, and machine learning into its products to help warehouse workers sort things for shipment more efficiently and accurately.
Improved learning and agility imply that robots are becoming more versatile. Unlike traditional industrial robots that are capable of performing a single task such as molding or metal fabrication, some newer robots can perform multiple tasks with minimal reprogramming. For example, some logistics companies use such robots to perform tasks such as metal fabrication, assembly and packaging at its warehouses.
The majority of newer robots are capable of performing navigating and working in unstructured environments alongside humans, rather than remaining glued to a fixed location within caged workplaces. These robots are embedded with multiple IoT sensors, computer vision capabilities, and mapping and location software to help them identify objects, sites, and people. Furthermore, they can navigate workplaces and home environments by avoiding hurdles. For example, Savioke’s next-generation robots can easily navigate indoor environments. At the same time, OTTO’s autonomous vehicles can learn and self-adjust their paths by using laser-based perception and memory-based visual reference points.
Several robots are now capable of interacting with humans because of natural language processing (NLP), computer vision, and speech recognition. This paves the way for broader applications for human-robot interaction with little to negligible human training. For instance, Jibo, a personal robot built for home entertainment and automation purposes, leverages the power of face recognition technology to personalize its interactions. Similarly, banks and financial institutions are employing and training them to interact and communicate with customers to resolve basic queries.
The demand for next-generation robots is growing because of falling prices and increasing popularity. The average selling price of conventional industrial robots is falling by over 4 percent annually, and researchers predict rates of cobots to decline by around 3 percent per year. The average cost of the majority of service robots is expected to shrink by 2 to 9 percent each year as well.
Shortages in labors are also fueling the demand for robots. For instance, several factories in China, farms in the United States, and restaurants and healthcare facilities in Singapore are facing labor shortages. Hence, in such situations, robots offer a viable replacement for human workers. Some businesses, such as the automotive sector, are employing and training collaborative robots to perform physically-challenging tasks, allowing aging workers to focus on less taxing work. On the other hand, rising labor costs are making these next-gen robots a reasonable alternative to workers.
Robots are no longer limited to performing a single task, but multiple functions outside of their usual caged environments. As robots themselves get better, flexible, agile, cheaper, and faster, their importance is growing. Businesses will feel their impact far beyond the warehouse floor. With the growing popularity of next-gen robots, senior executives and professionals of all business sectors can inform and prepare themselves to take advantage of the increasingly able robot workers.