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Roadmap to the Future

POSTED 08/12/2009  | By: Paul Kellett, RIA Director - Market Analysis

How will the Robotics Industry Evolve?

Henrik Christensen to Speak at the Robotics Industry Forum in Orlando, Florida.If Hollywood’s vision were correct, robotics in the future would represent a stark departure from today’s commercially available robots.  Either they would be kindly but slightly eccentric servants (like R2D2 and C-3PO in “Star Wars”) or mendacious killers (like T-800s in “The Terminator”).  Of course, Hollywood aims to entertain and not offer a strategic vision for the robotics industry.

For that, we turn to two recently released, insightful documents: “Robotic Visions to 2020 and Beyond (The Strategic Research Agenda for Robotics in Europe)” and “The US Robotics Industry Roadmap, A Roadmap for US Robotics from Internet to Robotics”.
(For purposes of this article, we refer to both documents as the “European Roadmap” and the “US Roadmap”.)

Authored by leading experts from academia and industry, both documents provide strategic visions of the future that contrast sharply with today’s reality.  Importantly, both visions are largely overlapping, despite opposing objectives, different approaches and somewhat dissimilar scopes of inquiry.

According to both views, robotics will be ubiquitous in the economy of the future.  Service industries (primarily medical and healthcare) will experience a growing dependence on robotics, especially as the work force and society in general age.  Reductions in the cost of robots and use of new technologies will enable this trend.  At the same time, robotics will continue to be important in manufacturing but will take a different form.  Instead of underpinning mass production in large factories (where production runs are long and product volumes are large and unvaried in features), the industrial robotics of the future will support mass customization in smaller factories (where production runs are short, lot sizes small and products are modular in configuration and highly variable in features).

Figure 1: Robots in Manufacturing: Today Versus the Future

Robots in Manufacturing  Production Mode  Production Runs  Lot Sizes  Product Configuration  Product Features
Today  Mass Production  Long  Large  Non-Modular  Limited Variety
Future  Mass Customization Short  Small  Modular  Highly Variable

As stated by the US Roadmap, “Robotics technology has historically been defined by the automotive sector and driven by price and the need to automate specific tasks particular to large volume manufacturing.  The new economy is much less focused on mass manufacturing, however, and more concentrated on producing customized products.  The model company is no longer a large entity such as GM, Chrysler, or Ford but small and medium sized enterprises…. The need in such an economy is far more dependent on higher degrees of adaptation, ease of use, and other factors that enable small runs of made-to-order products.”

According to the European Roadmap, the future of robotics will be one of much greater ubiquity.  Miniaturization and new sensing capabilities will mean that robotics is used in an increasing number of industries, including those with small and varying lot sizes, materials and product geometries.  Robotics will make great inroads in service industries, especially healthcare where an aging population will require support services, for which human care givers will be too few in number to provide.  Robots will likewise play an important role in transportation and in the provision of home services.  Robots will also help protect homes and offices, secure borders and monitor the environment in both routine and emergency operations. Finally, robots will perform key roles in both manned and unmanned space missions.

Recent developments lend some credence to the futuristic visions of the US and European roadmaps.  Although robots today are almost exclusively industrial, located in factories and used for mass production, new types of robots and signs of their impending ubiquity in the economy are starting to appear.  In the medical and health sector, for example, robotic-assisted surgery is emerging as a commercial application.  Mobile robotics is also starting to emerge in the military and security sectors.

Technology Roadmaps: Realizing the Future
Despite some indications that the visions of the US and European roadmaps could well materialize, the robotics of the future is highly contingent on the emergence of advanced technological capabilities. Both roadmaps identify key technological capabilities and set milestones for their realization.   According to the European Roadmap, the areas in which new technological breakthroughs are needed are: System architecture, system engineering tools, cooperating robots and ambient intelligence, real-time communication, human-machine interface, safety, actuation, end effectors, locomotion, materials, navigation, planning, power management, control, learning, modeling, sensors and sensing and perception.  With advances in these areas, it will be possible to satisfy the application requirements of sustainability, configuration, autonomy, adaptation, positioning, manipulation and grasping, robot-robot interaction, dependability, physical properties, human-robot interaction, process quality and standardization.  This, in turn, will enable development of six generic types of robots: Robotic workers, robotic co-workers (working directly with and for humans), logistic robotics (moving goods and people), robots for surveillance and intervention (protecting citizens against security threats), robots for exploration and inspection (operating in unknown or dangerous environments) and “edutainment” (educating and entertaining) robots.

The US Roadmap, on the other hand, emphasizes the need to develop critical capabilities in the areas of robust 3D perception, planning and navigation, human-like dexterous manipulation, intuitive human-robot interaction and safe robot behavior.   As this suggests, there appears to be much overlap between the US and European Roadmaps in terms of required technological capabilities.
The Need for R&D
Both roadmaps also point to R&D as the key to achieving regional leadership in robotics. Authors of the US Roadmap note that current US investment in R&D is woefully inadequate, as a consequence of which the US will lose its leadership position in medical/healthcare and service robotics (much in the same way that it ceded its dominance in industrial robotics to Japan and Europe).  In order to gain a competitive advantage, the European Roadmap specifically cites a need to acquire and leverage intellectual property in areas of critical technological capabilities.

Major Differences between the US and European Roadmaps
There are a number of differences between the roadmaps in terms of approach and scope of inquiry.  However, the major difference between the roadmaps lies in their overall strategic objective: Each roadmap seeks to gain a leadership position in robotics for its respective region. The US roadmap wants the US to reacquire its erstwhile position of preeminence, while the European roadmap seeks to solidify a position of leadership for Europe.  These opposing objectives could well give rise to intense competition for R&D investment.

Future Market Opportunities for the Robotics Industry
So what new opportunities will arise for robotic companies?  According to the US Roadmap, some important opportunities will emerge in:

  • Logistics (where presently “less than 15% of the end-to-end distribution process has been considered for automation”).
  • Medicine (where use of medical robots is expected to increase, because of the significant benefits of robotics-enabled minimally invasive surgery such as smaller incisions, faster recovery and less risk of infection).
  • Healthcare (in which robots will be deployed increasingly for medical training, rehabilitation, diagnosis and other areas where personalized assistance is beneficial).
  • Professional services (where robots will be used increasingly for mining, automated harvesting in agriculture and cleaning of large facilities).
  • Domestic services (in which robots will play an important role in cleaning, surveillance and home assistance).

In addition to these sectors, the European Roadmap also cites space and security (home protection, border security, etc.) as important areas of market opportunity.

The robotics industry is poised for a major expansion of its role in the economy and society as a whole, according to the US and European Robotic Roadmaps.  However, advancement to this future, and the realization of the important market opportunities that it will bring, is far from automatic.  The requisite technological capabilities must be first developed, and for that to happen, sufficient investments in R&D must occur.  According to the roadmaps, it all comes down to this: The region that leads in R&D will prevail in robotics. But which region will gain the long-term edge in R&D?  Investment decisions made today could well decide the fate of regional robotics industries tomorrow.