Six Trends in Industrial Robotics
| By: Emmet Cole, A3 Contributing Editor
External factors, from the pandemic to geopolitical insecurities and supply chain issues, have had an outsize impact on the industrial robotics sector in recent years.
At the same time, internal factors, such as technological and usability advancements also exert influence on industrial robot development and adoption.
Whether you’re new to industrial automation or come with decades of experience, there’s a lot of information to sift through, which makes identifying the most influential trends a real challenge.
So, as 2022 comes to an end, what are the trends that industry experts paying attention to?
Labor & Demographics
Scott Marsic, Group Product Manager – Robotics, at Epson America Inc. says labor shortages are “far and away, the number one trend” driving industrial automation adoption.
“The United States’ manufacturing sector is doing great work, but there are more jobs than there are people to fill them and that presents a problem.”
Labor issues are global, says Kary Zate, Sr. Director, Marketing Communications at warehouse automation specialists Locus Robotics.
“You've got labor shortages, an aging population in the warehouse, and a younger generation that’s not really interested in working in warehouse environments, because, frankly, it’s hard work that requires people to walk 10 to 15 miles a day in a cart-based environment. It's very taxing.”
With finding and retaining talent a major challenge for industry, a growing number of companies are turning to industrial automation to fill labor gaps, improve productivity, and stay competitive in a challenging macroeconomic landscape, explains Zate.
The pandemic accelerated both automation adoption and the digital transformation across the industrial sector, says Lian Jye Su, Research Director at market analyst firm ABI Research.
“This trend includes remote monitoring software and software that enables or otherwise facilitates the adoption of industrial automation,” says Su, citing READY Robotics’ robot operating system and RoboDK’s offline programming software as examples.
“There is no faster way to automate, especially when deploying a mix of robot brands, than to use these types of software. The traditional approach --hiring engineers to commission a robotic solution—can take weeks and months and that means a missed opportunity for a lot of these manufacturers.”
Explore any industry tradeshow and you will find a wide range of digitalization tools from AI and augmented reality to digital twins geared towards manufacturing applications, says Epson’s Marsic.
“It’s an exciting time in robotics and digitalization and these technologies are helping to attract new folks to robotics programming roles. For a programmer, the opportunity to work with AI and augmented reality and have their code deployed on industrial robots is pretty cool.”
Continuing Rise of Cobots & Mobile Robots
Collaborative robots remain the fastest growing segment of the industrial robotics sector, says ABI Research’s Su.
“There’s been a lot of positive feedback in recent years about how cobots are easy to deploy and, over time, cobots have found their niche in the industrial robotics sector and it has proven to be one that can complement both human labor and traditional industrial robots. I don’t think that growth is slowing down any time soon.”
According to ABI Research, the cobot market had a global valuation of USD475 million in 2020, expanded to USD600 million in 2021 and is expected to reach USD8 billion by 2030, at a projected CAGR of 32.5%.
At the same time, mobile robots are also seeing rapid surge in popularity, says Su. “Just ten years ago, mobile robots were a luxury, now they are found in almost every industry segment and location from deep sea oil rigs to manufacturing and warehouse facilities.”
Global robotics Venture Capital (VC) investment reached US$5.7 billion in 2021, at 38% year-on-year growth, with autonomous mobile robots attracting huge interest, according to ABI Research.
Labor costs overseas are rising quickly, while at the same time, the cost of automation is dropping significantly. These are just two of the factors that are helping to drive reshoring initiatives across the United States and other leading economies, says Epson’s Masic.
“Today, there are several additional issues to contend with from intellectual property and tariffs to geopolitics, and supply chain challenges. Companies need to bring back manufacturing quickly and the best way to do that, especially in the middle of a labor crisis, is with automation.”
And by shortening supply lines, reshoring can also reduce emissions and generate environmental benefits that help to make manufacturing more sustainable.
The increasing usability of industrial robot systems makes it easier than ever for companies of all sizes and technical skill levels to deploy automation.
“The drive for simplicity is a really important trend,” says Epson’s Masic. “People want to get their automation up and running quickly. This requires an easy-to-use operating system and extensive customer support throughout the entire process. The need for simplicity is being driven by new customers and new users coming into the automation space. We saw this trend before the pandemic, but since 2020 it has really blown up.”
The rising popularity of the Robotics-As-A-Service model has made automation adoption easier and less capital intensive, giving operators the ability to seamlessly scale to meet changing volumes and seasonal spikes in just minutes vs. the typical time frames that can take weeks or months, says Locus Robotics’ Zate.
Focus on Sustainability
There is growing concern around sustainability and climate issues among robot manufacturers and their customers, says Masic.
“Sustainability and environmental responsibility are long-time core values of the Epson organization. For example, by moving away from ground-based sources of materials as much as possible and by exploring the whole lifecycle of our products to discover which parts can be reused.”
From the outset, Locus Robotics developed its business model based on sustainability principles, including widespread refurbishment of parts, says Zate.
“We like to say ‘No robot ever dies.’ Sustainability is something that we have always taken seriously and is part our DNA. Today, sustainable manufacturing is really gaining widespread traction both in the robotics industry and among our customers.”
RaaS is a key component of Locus Robotics’ sustainability mission, adds Zate: “Because our robots can be refurbished, we can bring them back in, repair them, upgrade them with new types of hardware, new types of software. This means that our customers have the latest and greatest automation at all times.”