How to make friends with robots? Here is what you need to know about them

Robotics is a booming business and startup founders looking to build the next robotic unicorn should know what trends to ride on the long way to IPO bliss. One of the best places to get acquainted with the latest robotic achievements is the Automatica, Munich’s largest robotics and automation trade fair in Europe. I went there and here is what I saw.

This year several trends dominated the discussions on the floor and stages alike. Industry 4.0 (industrial IoT) was probably the hottest theme of the fair while Service Robotics (robots that perform services opposed to working on production lines), Startups (needs no introduction I hope) and social implications of robots (job market effects and Robotics Law) got plenty of attention as well.

Startups in industrial production

Hardware is a difficult field for cash strapped startups that often start with a bold vision but have to pivot and do a bunch of redesigns before achieving product-market-fit. With software, pushing out new versions and fixes is cheaper and faster to do. Hardware changes take more time and investment in tooling while customers are also less lenient to design mistakes when they have to invest heavily in connected infrastructure. Hence, in the industrial field large corporations are the main drivers of innovation while startup companies are more dominant in the service robotics field.

The only real winner startup that stands out with its rapid growth is Universal Robots (UR), the Danish company that practically created the affordable collaborative robot (cobot) market where robots work alongside production workers in the manufacturing process. UR was founded in 2005 and in less than 10 years delivered the first - and until now the only - big European robotics startup exit when it was sold to Teradyne Inc. for $285 million in cash, last year.

So where should startup founders look to build the next big robotics success?Here come the 10 hottest trends in robotics that will shape the future of manufacturing based on the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association’s predictions:

1. Human-Robot collaboration:

It sounds like a no-brainer that humans and robots should work together. But safety has been an issue for long and robots on factory floors are still mostly working in cages. This is because most of them are dangerous as they move with momentum and could smash things that get in their way.

As more and more sensors as well as computing and communication equipment become commodity priced, robot manufacturers can increase safety by making robots more aware of their surroundings. In the future we will see more robotic devices helping factory workers do the heavy lifting…

Chairless chair in an Audi factory by Noonee

and acting as a third arm for factory operators.

Collaborative UR robot in factory production

2. Ease of use

Industrial robots are employed to work with precision and speed, but it used to require very careful programming to set up even simple tasks like picking up an object. With the emergence of cobots the focus of the teach-in process shifted from programming to simply showing the robot what to do. Operators now just move the robot into the desired positions by hand and the machine registers the coordinates. Thanks to intuitive communication, operation and programming platforms more and more robots can be assigned to new tasks by in-house operators reducing the reliance on outside help from integrator companies.

3. Affordability drives wide scale adoption

Combine safety, commodity priced hardware and ease of use and it is not hard to see why industrial robot applications are entering new markets. While the automotive sector is still the largest user of industrial robots the growth in adoption is now much faster in the electronics and metal processing industries. Many of the new robot users in these segments are small and medium sized factories and even workshops like this German joinery.

4. Robots become mobile

As the chocolate packing device above, most industrial robots today stay where they were put. In a large factory this usually means somewhere in a linear production line. In the next generation setting though, robots work as mobile workbenches transporting the parts between production islands (and may as well working on them in the meantime) as seen in this German gear factory.

4. Robots learn new skills on their own and share their knowledge

Researchers have long been working on robots that can teach themselves and the results of their experiments are now made available in the factories.

Now robots using deep-learning algorithms can train themselves to learn new tasks. While a new skill may have taken five or more hours to program for a skilled employee, robots now can be told what to practice and left alone for the night. By repeating the same task over and over and analyzing successful and failed attempts robots can master tasks just by themselves. What started with hopeless practice in the evening turns into an applicable skill by the next morning shift.

Cloud robotics then allows robots to share their accumulated knowledge with their peers.

5. Industrial and service robotics are not so different anymore

To the pleasure or the workforce and management alike more and more service robots are moving into the factories delivering work-pieces, scanning objects and communicating with employees.

The Audi Robotic Telepresence system is an advanced remotely-controlled robot that displays the face of the operator on its screen and moves around the factory area.

And to the delight of consumers we also see industrial robots appear in service applications such as the badly needed Makr Shakr bionic bartender robot. With more than 150 thousand cocktails served under its belt Makr Shakr just became the first robot bartender employed on the Royal Caribbean’s latest luxury cruise ship the Ovation of the Seas. Guests can place their orders through the mobile app and the Singapore Sling is ready in no time.

Now all I dream about is this system to magically appear in my living room. If you can arrange that, let me know!

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