Industrial robots aren’t known for their flexibility, but are precise and efficient tools in the manufacturing world. As the cost of sensors, components and vision systems drops robots equipped with vision capabilities are becoming more prevalent.
The rise of vision capable robots is changing the industry dramatically. These changes are seen in China’s recent trends of robotic company acquisitions, start-up companies and technological developments.
Trend 1: China’s Appetite
China and it’s economy continue to switch through all the different stages of industrialisation and consumption driven growth. There have been many factors that contribute to the robotic growth in China, these include the automated exportation of cars, the government’s incentive plans for a home-grown robotic industry and the rising wages of capable factory workers.
China is slowly devouring the robotics market as both a buyer and emerging seller, but to fully capture the market China needs to improve quality and precision. The improvements can be found in end-of-arm tooling, speed reducers and harmonic drives will need to be manufactured inside China, rather than importation. International robotics and automation companies are being acquired, with the manufacturing to be done inside China shifting the industry in-country.
The in-country market is being encouraged by China’s government, who is providing incentives and attractive loans to companies/local governments with the overall aim to have 100,000 industrial robots produced in-country by 2020, with annual sales of 30 billion yuan ($5.4 billion).
Trend 2: Collaborative Robots
Collaborative robots (cobots) are one of the fastest growing markets in robotics. Car companies are replacing traditional industrial robots with a combination of humans and cobots, adding an extra level of flexibility and safety to plants and factory floors. The collaboratice robots industry is growing, with Universal Robots being the first major player now seeing competition coming from Kuka, ABB and others.
Cobots deliver flexibility, safety, the ability to be deployed rapidly and are extremely easy to interact with making training employees simple. Constant improvements seen in cobotics will keep the pressure of pricing as seen at Automatica 2016 in Munich. Almost all exhibited company had collaborative robots as the centrepiece to their companies message.
Trend 3: Robotics as a Service (RaaS)
In a recent research project on robotics in the agriculture industry, a very cost-sensitive industry, many companies are offering services utilizing robots – instead of selling the robots and having the farmer operate them. Thinning, weeding, spraying, aerial imaging and analytics are examples of the services being offered.
This concept of offering services instead of the products used in providing the services is and has been a way to introduce untested products into the marketplace but many enterprising startups are finding economies of scale benefit the service provider. Using drones to capture sensor and camera data and then developing software to analyze that data and translate it into actionable plans has crossed industry boundaries and is being offered not only to ag companies but to oil and gas companies, and NGOs and governments wishing to monitor hard-to-get-to areas. Security companies are beginning to offer RaaS to supplement, augment and replace interior security, etc.
There is also a blurring of the line between real robots that perform tasks in physical space and software bots that perform a virtual robot-like service. As a consequence, many companies and service providers are going beyond offering SDKs (software development kits for the making of apps) to opening up their APIs (application protocol interface) so that these new bots can increase their scope and effectiveness and make it easier for their users. Apple just announced that they are opening up their APIs and Amazon has been encouraging developers to take advantage of their Echo and Alexa conversational voice recognition systems. This is helping many new startups offer RaaS using customized Alexa-enabled Echo-like devices. An example is the Belgium startup Zora Robotics which is using Amazon’s Echo/Alexa system – and software of their own – in various robots to provide services into the health and eldercare marketplace.
Trend 4: Logistics and material handling
With the recent advancements with 3D vision technology resulting in a reduced cost. Automation companies are to provide superior materials handling systems for warehouses and distribution systems. With the increased e-commerce over previous years as well as consumers looking for fast shipment pushed the logistics companies to invest in higher level technology. Additional benefits to automation in warehouses and distribution centres include lower operating costs and WHS risk due to less employees performing manual handling tasks, detailed tracking and traceability and increased speed resulting in lower delivery times
Trend 5: Investments in robotics
In 2015, the Robot Report concluded the following: 55 startup companies received $1.32 billion in funding, 32 acquisitions totalled $2.27 billion (for those reporting amounts) and that there was one IPO. 2016 so far showed 56 start up companies receive $427.5 million and over 20 acquisitions so far totalling $4.53 billion (from 11 reporting amounts involved). If the $3.5 bn Uber funding from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund isn’t objected to, and the bid for 49% of Kuka for $2.5 billion is accepted, the figures are much higher.
Western robotic technology investment, by Chinese investors of particular interest in this category are: the bid by Midea to buy 49% of Kuka, KraussMaffei by ChemChina; Paslin by Wanfeng and Gimatic by Agic Capital. China is definitely on an acquisitions spree.
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