18th April 2019 |
Last week the Cipher team attended the biannual Automate conference in Chicago, North America’s largest conference for robotics and automation, with over 20,000 visitors and 500+ exhibitors. There was, of course, a large section focusing on the latest and greatest advances for large scale automation and robotics (e.g. manufacturing a car), but most notably was that of small scale robotics and automation. In other words, not GM or Ford using ever more robots and automated machines to put together a car, but rather automating interactions with people. Large-scale warehouses of fulfilment centres are now employing small autonomous robots for repetitive tasks and smaller manufacturing companies, say 200 man operations, will now be able to use small scale, easy-to-program automated robots to be able to boost manufacturing wherever needed – the first onsite incarnation of the concept dubbed as ‘Industry 4.0’.
Universal robots – the first cobot company now ten years into their journey.
Key factors influencing the market:
– Shortage of workers willing to do so-called 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous, demanding). It is estimated that there are half a million unfilled US manufacturing jobs.
– Price and size of sensors has decreased, now making smaller robots feasible
– Manufacturing flexibility has lead to shorter cycles.
From a product point of view, it was clear what the solution is: cobots, cobots and even more cobots. The cobot (collaborative robot) was everywhere.
In essence, it is a robot that does not require a safety fence to be part of the manufacturing process, due to a multitude of sensors that stop at any contact with humans and do not need coding skills.
Interestingly, the incumbents (ABB, Fanuc, Kuka, Yaskawa and others), albeit strong in large scale industrial robots, seemed to be falling behind the likes of cobot specialists like Universal Robots, Productive Robotics and Doosan. Also on show were autonomous mobile robots (also known as AGVs, automated guided vehicles) from companies like Seegrid and MiR, they are less for manufacturing and more for fulfilment.
Fanuc – the leader in industrial robots, also emphasising collaboration between robots and humans.
The inflexion point has passed, ROI for cobots which are $30k, or, as someone put it, at the price of one ergonomics claim. With coding no longer needed to program the robots, it would seem as if the robotics market could be analogous to the telecoms market pre-smartphones.
Doosan robotics from South Korea had one of the largest stands and made a big point about the consumer electronics domination of LG and Samsung and how those UIs are familiar to people.
The potential surge in robotics deployment will come from SMEs using cobots; there is no doubt about it, and it’s cost-effective (not to mention the shortage of labour). But as they go searching for their first cobot purchase, it does not seem obvious that the robotics heritage of ABB, Kuka and Fanuc will play a winning role compared to the sleek, mobile device orientated programming UI’s that are strong USP’s of the cobot leaders. So does this mean that we could be seeing a disrupted market within the already ongoing disruption that is industrial automation? Possibly, what’s clear is that the threats for ABB, Kuka and Fanuc will unlikely come from that group of 3, but rather from one of the dozens of cobot manufacturers showcasing at Automate.