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Fast-growing sectors within robotics and automation

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If we were to think of robotics and automation as one industry – which we at this website in fact do – we could argue that it’s one of the fastest-growing industries in the world right now.

Certainly if we were to include software automation systems – such as robotic process automation – it would probably be the biggest.

But Robotics and Automation News tends to concentrate on physical machines – such as robotic arms or autonomous vehicles – which can be seen in a typical manufacturing or logistics facility.

And we try and understand what other sectors are most closely related to robotics and automation – manufacturing and logistics being two obvious ones.

Increasingly, we are looking at new areas and technologies, such as driverless cars, which are basically robotic in nature – that’s if they can be said to have a nature.

 

And also we cannot ignore the home or building automation sector, which itself is absolutely massive and growing all the time.

So we thought it might be a good idea to list some of the sectors that this website deals with and see what trends and business growth are possible going forward.

Industrial robots

This is the mainstay of this website. A branch of industrial automation, industrial robots are seeing ever-increasing adoption around the world as they slowly decrease in price and as more consumers demand ever-more sophisticated, hi-tech, manufactured goods.

It’s not just smartphones any more, though that is still a gigantic market and still growing, it’s a whole new generation of technologies – from smartwatches and health monitoring wearables to autonomous delivery vehicles and cars.

Whatever the end product, it’s likely that some sort of robotics and automation technology was used to make it.

There are numerous reports that show the market for industrial robotics is continuing to grow apace and it will be interesting to see what the industrial robot manufacturers make of this positive situation.

Collaborative industrial robots

While traditionally industrial robotic arms are seen as a branch of industrial automation, collaborative industrial robots could be said to be a sub-branch of the traditional industrial robots.

Traditional industrial robots tend to be large and used for heavy industrial work, most often within automotive facilities, and are usually caged off to separate them from human workers.

Collaborative robots, or cobots, are mostly smaller and lighter and safer to work with. International standards require them to be intrinsically safe for humans to work with in close proximity or contact.

This means they are often slower and less powerful, which is fine if you only need it for light industrial work.

And because cobots are much like any other power tools – such as a drill or sander, albeit much more sophisticated – they are thought to have huge market potential.

Imagine if they became as widespread as drills or electric saws.

Exoskeletons

This technology could be said to be a surprise package in the sense that not many people pictured them in an industrial context.

Mostly they were seen and thought of as being of benefit to people suffering from some physical disability, like not being able to walk properly or walk at all.

But entirely able-bodied workers in numerous factories and on construction sites now sport exoskeletons and the trend is likely to grow.

Manufacturing, logistics, construction and many of what might be regarded as “traditional” industries – that is, pre-internet and pre-computers – are physically demanding on the human body.

Using exoskeletons would mean the average worker would expend a lot less energy over the course of an average working week.

This could have health benefits but it could also reverse a generations-old aversion to working in these traditional sectors as the previous reluctance to do such physically demanding jobs may be less of an issue going forward.

But that’s not to say that that type of work will ever be as physically undemanding as sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen all day.

Logistics robots

One of the main growth areas in terms of the readership of this website over the past year has been logistics robots.

People are very interested in warehouse automation and logistics automation in general, and within that space, those small robotic vehicles, whether they are called autonomous vehicles or automated guided vehicles or whatever.

A variety of new robotics companies have started seeing their business take off in this sector, and this is almost certainly just the beginning.

It’s another huge market.

Not only are robotics and automation systems in demand from logistics companies themselves, material handling companies – which are usually contracted by logistics companies – also need the technology.

Then there are the huge manufacturing companies which use those small AGVs or other logistics vehicles within their own facilities for their own requirements.

And let’s not forget the possibility of seeing many more autonomous trucks and vans and cars and pavement vehicles around and about in many cities and other places going forward in the next few years.

Building automation

This is a subject we think is interesting and we do try and cover it, but with limited resources (subscribe and support us) we can only do so much.

To some, it might not seem glamorous – but then, this website isn’t exactly glamourous – but it’s an important subject.

Buildings use up a lot of energy – electricity, gas and even oil. The more that automation is brought into play, the more efficient the buildings can become.

This seems like a win-win for everyone – environmental nuts from those crazy save the world organisations as well as the businesses that those nuts often protest against.

The amount of money that an average building can save by adding or integrating automation would be quite significant.

Home automation

Another subject well worth looking more deeply into, home automation is a massive market.

Almost the same as building automation, except it’s on a smaller scale and obviously consumer-oriented, the sector is often referred to as “smart home” technology.

Home automation technology is generally meant to include Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, Google Home and other similar devices. These “smart speakers” as they are often called can connect to any other smart system in your home, from lighting controls to doorbells and so on.

However, they are devices that are stationary and this website tends to cover machines that move.

In that category, there are a number of robots that have been launched. Robotic vacuum cleaners have been around a while and it’s a growing market. But what’s relatively new is home robots.

Also, there’s such things as the automated wardrobes and ironing systems that promise to make domestic chores a thing of the past.

Home robots

Home robots many different forms, from Sony’s Aibo dog to Bosch’s Kuri “humanoid” – if it can be called that.

Having said that, most of them seem to take the Kuri form – sort of humanoid, but not quite. More like a small snowman on wheels, which is another common feature, along with dots – often integrating cameras – for eyes, and microphones where the ears would be if it were human or animal.

Misty Robotics’ new machine is another example, and it might be worth making a list of them and seeing how well they’re selling.

Customer service robots

In terms of form factor, customer service robots are quite similar in terms of shape and features to home robots, but are often larger in dimensions.

Examples include SoftBank Robotics’ Nao and Pepper models, and Hitachi’s Emiew.

Nao is probably the most technically complex because it features legs and feet that enable it to mimic human walking. The others get around on wheels.

Nao and Pepper have found gainful employment in a variety of businesses – such as hotels and industry exhibitions – and Hitachi is hoping for the same for Emiew, although it is mainly targeting transport hubs because the parent company does a lot of business there.

These robots – at around $3,000 to $10,000 each – are too expensive for most homes.

Retail automation

Many industries are seeing higher levels of automation but the one that is probably going to be most noticeable is retail.

Already there are automated tills in most large stores and bank ATMs have been around for decades.

This trend is likely to accelerate over the next few years because of the increased availability of necessary technologies, such as computing, networking and hardware.

Soon, shops will become the equivalent of giant, walk-in vending machines with few, if any, humans operating them directly.

Humanoids and androids

Androids – robots that are virtually indistinguishable from a human both in terms of looks and functionality – are probably several decades away.

But that may be a little over-optimistic given the accelerating advances in artificial intelligence and mechatronics in general.

Boston Dynamics and others have shown us the so-called “uncanny valley” – by building robots that move in terrifyingly realistic ways but look nothing like the real thing.

If the company was to use different, perhaps softer, materials and make their robots look more lifelike, it would probably lead to worldwide pandemonium.

Whether it’s Boston Dynamics or some other company, or a Dr Frankenstein-like individual, who creates them, it’s inevitable that androids will be here, and they will probably think we’re largely useless and can be disposed of.

Autonomous drones 

Most people probably haven’t seen a drone at work yet, but there’s a huge number of them in operation in many sectors.

Drones, along with their autonomous wheeled colleagues down on the ground and their super-high-tech robotic relatives in space, are said to be the way goods will be delivered in the future.

In fact, some say the vast majority of goods will be delivered by driverless vehicles of one sort or another within 10 years.

And while autonomous delivery vehicles are being tested in urban and other areas, drones are making a living in the construction and mining sectors.

There are some regulatory hurdles yet to overcome, the main obstacle being that a drone is required to be within sight of its operator, which prevents remote, centralised control of fleets of drones by a small number of human operators.

However, for checking large agricultural fields or power pylons and such that may be hundreds of metres apart, it seems an ideal solution, so will inevitably be a huge market going forward.

Autonomous planes, trains and automobiles 

Closely related to logistics robots – in the sense that they move around in three-dimensional space, albeit a less complex one – autonomous cars will probably take to the roads much sooner than anticipated.

Already the established automakers have launched vehicles which have high levels of self-driving capabilities, and it may be less than a decade before the majority of new cars are able to drive themselves.

Driverless trains are also being tested, although there is less complexity involved in moving along a railway line.

Logistics looks likely to be the sector in which autonomous vehicles – whether they be trucks, cars or trains, or even drones and planes – become the norm sooner or later. It’s just a matter of time. Agriculture – driverless tractors and so on – is also set to become a big market.

Industrial internet of things

More machines and devices are being connected to computer networks than ever before, and this trend is definitely going to continue and grow.

At the moment, a lot of those networks are closed and use at least some proprietary technologies. This is thought to be a safer option than open networks.

The so-called software-defined networks emerging generally enable open standards, which means any hardware can be connected to any network.

Although this open culture is deemed to be less secure, it allows for more commercial opportunities for a larger number of companies – whether they are hardware or software developers.

Some openness is essential – otherwise networking different hardware together would be impossible. But it will be interesting to see how things develop since many of the closed networks charge more money.

Software eating hardware

The digitalisation of everything – from individual components to complex, integrated systems – is creating a parallel virtual world, complete with real-world physics simulations.

Already we are seeing entire factories and the end products they make being tested and evaluated in virtual environments within computers before being built and implemented in the real world.

The benefits of this are obvious – it’s a lot less expensive to test virtual things than it is to evaluate real things, whether we’re talking about prototypes of goods or architectural models of buildings.

This is bringing software increasingly to the fore, and additive manufacturing along with it.

Also, something called “generative design” – an automated feature within design software applications – is enabling industrial designers to come up with many different iterations of a design at the click of a button.

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing

As clever as 3D printing seems – and it certainly is clever – strictly speaking, the process has been around forever.

Meaning, all printing is actually 3D printing, even the old newspaper presses put three-dimensional ink onto three-dimensional paper. Everything is 3D.

It’s just that the process was never applied to making industrial components, which use metals such as steel.

Traditionally, bits from a block of steel would be subtracted to fashion the part required.

Now, however, new additive manufacturing systems can 3D print parts from the other direction – by adding layer upon layer of material to create what is required.

Steel and other hard metals with very high melting points have so far proved difficult for 3D printers, but progress is being made.

Meanwhile, a whole new generation of materials is emerging which could not only replace traditional metals in some instances but also provide better functionality.

Materials science

It might be the least showy part of the industrial design process but materials science is, of course, fundamental.

New materials, such as graphene, could change everything.

Lighter, stronger materials would mean components can be made quieter and more energy-efficient.

Moreover, the components can be created in a wider variety of 3D printing machines.

Large-scale 3D printing operations are already being established and, with it, the era of mass customisation will be upon us.

Sensors

Smartphones, specifically the iPhone, unleashed the power of sensors on the masses.

Until then, sensors were too expensive to use in most devices. The economies of scale gained through the manufacturing of billions of iPhones and other smartphones means sensors are relatively cheap now.

This has made put them within reach of just about everyone, and literally billions of sensors are now in operation in many different industries, and many tens of billions more are on the way.

Chips

A close relative of sensors, chips – meaning microprocessors, microcontrollers and so on – have also benefitted from the smartphone revolution.

They may be slightly more expensive than sensors, with more sophisticated ones being developed which will fetch higher prices, but they are cheap enough for most machine builders to use without worrying about adding too much to the overall cost.

A new trend is specialised chips – those made with specific applications in mind, whether it’s robotics and automation or artificial intelligence without any physical movement involved.

General processors and application-specific integrated circuits are still the dominant species at this fundamental level of the technology ecosystem, but a new breed of chip is evolving which will give the dastardly machines even more power over humanity.

Basically, we’re all doomed.


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