Since the advent of the Unimate arm to stack hot die-cast metal on the factory floor of GM’s plant in the 1950s, innovation in robotics technology has produced massive gains in industrial productivity. The replacement of repetitive and dangerous work by machines made factory assembly lines more effective. In particular, these machines, which were capable of large forces, high speeds and great precision, were even more valuable in situations where the environment were controlled and human interactions were restricted.
Fast forward 60 years, one sees that the landscape of modern robotics has changed significantly. Advances in machine vision and motion sensor technology combined with a shift towards consumer-based economies has spawned an emerging class of technology that is better equipped to service the increased demand across industries such as e-commerce and food — soft robotics. Unlike conventional robot systems which require tedious programming and are built from stiff materials such as steel and aluminum, soft robotics utilize autonomous systems to handle increasingly intelligent work with soft structures, allowing for more degrees of freedom and higher dexterity.
What exactly is soft robotics and how big is this market?
Soft robotics is a general term that covers all types of active and reactive compliant systems ranging from soft actuators, soft stretchable sensors, soft energy harvesting, and even soft electronics. These machines are largely constructed from soft materials (e.g. silicone) and most commonly powered by flow of fluids (e.g. air and liquid). What makes this new technology exciting from an entrepreneurial perspective is the wide range of potential commercial and personal applications beyond industrial manufacturing. Soft robotics are more compatible with human interactions as their soft and easily deformable bodies ensure minimal damage in the human environment, opening up access to end-user industries in the medical, healthcare, agriculture, packaging and food areas.
Boston Consulting Group estimates that more than $67 billion will be spent worldwide in the robotics sector by 2025¹. With sales of all types of domestic robots (e.g. vacuum cleaner robots, lawnmower robots, window cleaner robots) expected to reach 32 million units, and a global patient monitoring and assistance robots market estimated to grow at a 30% CAGR, these projections indicate that a $30 billion market is available for savvy entrepreneurs to capture. With demand and AI technology growing side-by-side, soft robotics represents a potential growth area for investment.
Technological Applications in Soft Robotics
The current state of the soft robotics market can be characterized as moderately competitive with soft robot manufacturers developing very specific solutions. As demand for warehouse space increases with e-commerce growth, soft robotics solutions are being applied to alleviate industry-wide pressure to deliver orders on time. In 2017, the average warehouse ceiling height was 21% higher compared to 2001, while spending for new warehouse construction hit a peak in October 2017, with $2.7B spent on construction in that month alone².
As a result, demand for collaborative, low-cost robots outfitted with sensors, actuators, and vision hardware (such as lidar) has grown to meet the needs of fulfillment, transport, picking and sorting.
On the food and agriculture side, soft robotics technology is being commercialized in areas relating to food handling and packaging. Soft robotic grippers can hold soft and fragile food items such as eggs, fruits and pastries while a conventional rigid gripper would not be able to grasp such easily deformable objects without damaging the item.
On the healthcare side, the inherent safety provided by compliant body parts opens up a completely new greenspace for physical interactions between machines and humans. Soft robotics technologies such as exoskeletons have the potential to supplement and improve rehabilitation and human motion augmentation for workers, the elderly, and for the entertainment industry. Despite rapidly aging populations around the world, recent research in this field for solutions comprising assistive technologies to compensate for lost bodily functions and monitoring systems for physiological conditions is promising.
Soft Robotics and Fusion Fund
We view the emergence of soft robotics as an enabling technology for businesses looking to disrupt the economics of manufacturing, e-commerce, agriculture and healthcare. As such, we are interested in backing entrepreneurs who are enabling the next generation of task automation beyond the capacities of current robotics technology. Technological progress will depend on key service providers to commercialize industrial and consumer applications. For example, soft robots are physical systems that require efficient actuators, power sources and control schemes given the light and compact requirements, which limit power generation and battery storage capabilities. Furthermore, highly complex soft robots require elaborate middleware technology that bridges the multitude of heterogenous and interconnected hardware and software modules composing them. In the coming years, we are excited to see new applications of this nascent technology in industries beyond industrial manufacturing.