Trends in Robotics and Automation – 2018

Robotics is the science and technology behind the design, manufacturing and application of robots. Robotics and automation have fascinated humans for ages and in the 21st century has advanced radically to include machines capable of assembling other machines and even robots.

Robotics is the interdisciplinary branch of engineering and science that includes mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and others. Robotics deals with the design, construction, operation, and use of robots,  as well as computer systems for their control, sensory feedback, and information processing. – Wikipedia



Web Robots and Bots

Automation, and use of bots aided by emerging techniques like  artificial intelligence and machine learning are advancing at fast pace. Intelligent machines and ‘bots’ are already being employed in ways we never thought possible a few years ago. Automation and robotic techniques are also being applied to design  web robot, a.k.a bots, and application that runs automated tasks over the Internet. Some bots are being programmed to mimic human responses when you talk to them so it feels like asking a person for help instead of just typing in a search engine.

Bots often live inside messaging apps — or are at least designed to look that way — and it should feel like you’re chatting back and forth as you would with a human. Bots and chatbots are increasingly being designed to simulate conversation in social media.  They are also being designed to handle a variety of customer service requests, which would normally require a telephone call to a human agent.


Evolution of Robotics and Automation

Robots are also staple themes in Sci-Fi and in some cases entrepreneurs and scientists have taken a cue from fiction to visualize the art of the possible. Interestingly, the term ‘robotics‘ was first used by the author Isaac Asimov in his 1941 story ‘Liar!’ and took hold.

Modern industrial Automation is an ongoing journey that started with the advent of industrial revolution. In the 1970’s, the original DCS techniques were developed by a team of engineers at Honeywell. Several innovative ‘startups‘ developed HMI software for PLCs and industrial I/O.

As computing technologies and programming techniques improve, robots are finding their way into jobs that have been too dangerous, dull or impossible for humans to achieve. We find Robots have in a variety of areas ranging from toys for recreation and entertainment, search and rescue assistants to  drones and automated vehicles.

Many technology companies are investing in robotic technologies too. For instance, Amazon has integrated the Kiva robots with its warehouse technology. The benefits are obvious as the Cnet writer explains

Tracy’s 3,000 Kiva robots pick up shelves of products from the warehouse floor and bring them to a human employee who picks items and then packs them for shipping. This saves Amazon time and presumably money as well, though the company declined to say how much. Amazon’s Clark said the average amount of time it takes to grab an item from a shelf and stuff it in a box is now about 15 minutes per order, down from an hour and a half. Amazon has steadily improved the robots since Kiva’s acquisition, as well. The latest Kiva robot can move 50 percent more inventory out of the center than its predecessor could.


Innovative trends and Opportunities

Notable trends shaping up in the space include

  • Emergence of Robotics as a Service (RaaS) – Robots, especially industrial robots are expensive to procure and maintain. Therefore most industrial users hire specialized firms to service and maintain robots. For instance, large farms in North America hire the services of firms offering machines for thinning, weeding, spraying, aerial imaging and analytics. This works out more cost-effective when compared to owning such hi-tech equipment.
  • Mergers and buyout – While global manufacturing giants including Qualcomm, Toyota continue to invest in automation, tech companies are building capability by acquiring niche players. A few years ago, Amazon bought Kiva Systems and morphed it into Amazon Robotics. (Ref: “Amazon Lays Out Its Vision for a Sky Thronging with Delivery Drones”) Google has also been buying out robotics companies though its plans are still unclear. A  report in NYT says “It is the eighth robotics company that Google has acquired in the last half-year. Executives at the Internet giant are circumspect about what exactly they plan to do with their robot collection.”
  • Globalization – Chinese companies are also aggressively pushing for robots as they move into the value-added advanced manufacturing services. China deployed tens of thousands of industrial robots in 2017 (ref: The Robot Rampage – Bloomberg. South Korean companies also continue to lead in the global robotics race. As per some accounts, Korea leads  number robots deployed per worker basis: Korean manufacturers use 396 robots per 10,000 workers. The same figures for Japan and Germany are 332 and 273.
  • Autonomous Robots – Robotic technology combined with sensors, cameras and computing is leading to innovative advances in several areas. In 2015, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration released regulations for registering drones and began technology that could help automate air traffic control for automated drones (see “FAA Will Test Drones’ Ability to Steer Themselves Out of Trouble”). Similar advances from robotics are also driving self-driving and autonomous vehicles.
  • Toys, entertainment and home help – As hardware becomes cheaper and software techniques advance robotic home companions and helpers are taking off with robotic toys (see “Personal Robots: Artificial Friends with Limited Benefits”). 
  • Use of Bots for Customer engagementTaco Bell built a bot that will order Crunchwrap Supremes for you –  The fast food chain is offer an artificial-intelligence-powered ordering service. Aptly named TacoBot, the software will make use of AI advancements like natural language processing to let users talk with the bot, order food, and even pay for items entirely through Slack. TacoBot can also provide recommendations, answer questions, and organize group office orders. It apparently comes equipped with a “witty personality you’d expect from Taco Bell.”

Corporate leaders should understand the trends in the industry and selectively engage with experts and consultants who can guide them navigate this space.  Despite their allure, robotics continues to be niche and fragmented business. Implementing robots and robotic technologies requires a lot of investment and specialized skills. Therefore most large companies and manufacturers aggregate and integrate services from small, niche automation and robotics vendors.

A few startups engaged in robotics and automation

Mitra – Image shared by CEO Balaji Viswanathan

  • GreyOrange is a multinational technology firm that designs, manufactures and deploys advanced robotics systems for automation at distribution and fulfillment centers. They combine expertise in robotics, hardware and software engineering to solve operational inefficiencies in warehouse operations at both third-party logistics vendors as Gridbotsll as companies with in-house logistics functions.
  • Invento  is a hardware company based out of Bengaluru that makes humanoid robots used in banks and event management. Its humanoid robot, Mitra, has been getting a lot of media attention in India. Mitra is a 4.5 feet tall humanoid that is designed to interact with humans through natural ways – voice and vision. It recognizes speech and then converts that to actionable information.
  • Asimov Robotics –  Aims to be a single window solution and services provider for robotics/automation needs. They provide engineering products solutions and consultancy in the areas like robotic simulation and control, machine-vision, training, virtual reality, and navigation applications.They have expertise in designing and developing customized solutions to meet specific requirements to maximize profit, maintain quality, reduce risk and to support research.

Edited and compiled by: Mohan K | Reproduction with permission only | Contact