Smart Factories FEATURE NEWS

Industry 4.0: The Robots are Coming

By Special Guest
Martin Keenan, Technical Director, Avnet Abacus
January 14, 2020

Robots as a service is an increasingly hot market segment in IIoT, with a wealth of promising startups and some large incumbents collectively delivering significant benefits to enterprise.

Robots in heavy industry are relatively well-established, in areas as diverse as welding, spraying, cutting and clean room applications. However, they tend to be highly-specialized, high cost, and are usually thoroughly isolated from human co-workers due to safety concerns.

Recently, a new breed of lighter, more flexible devices - dubbed ‘cobots’ - are beginning to see wider deployment in smart, Industry 4.0 enabled factories and warehouses. Because cobots are generally ‘smarter’ - loaded with more safety-enhancing sensors, AI and connectivity - they can be deployed in more complex environments without large-scale physical changes, widening their market appeal and leading to increased market interest in RaaS (Robots as a Service).

Analyst group ABI Research estimates there will be more than 1.3 million RaaS deployments worldwide by 2026 with the largest installations in logistics, manufacturing and hospitality - these three seeing a gigantic predicted CAGR of 66%. The firm’s report on the area found that RaaS revenues and deployments are rapidly eclipsing those from more traditional robot purchases, partly due to the benefits of OpEx rather than CapEx investment, but also due to the value of bundled support.

Just as with other service models, a vital benefit of RaaS is the ability for smaller enterprises to take advantage of cobot technology without needing to invest in in-house expertise, as well as expensive hardware and ongoing physical and software maintenance. By removing these significant barriers to entry, RaaS is transforming a number of verticals, even as the wider market continues to mature.

Improving security
A perhaps-unlikely growth vertical for robots is the security industry, where deployments of monitoring bots enable human operators to keep tabs on much larger areas than is possible ‘manually’. One Californian startup, Cobalt Robotics, recently secured $35 million in series B financing and propounds a bright future for indoor security robots. Cobalt Robotics customers (including some Fortune 50 firms) pay a monthly subscription that provides access to the robots, software upgrades, and remote support. The five-foot-high cone-shaped robots patrol pre-designated routes, using an array of sensors including Lidar, thermal cameras and infrared + ultrasonic sensors to spot intruders or environmental incidents.

Needless to say, there is plenty of competition in the emerging RaaS security market, including firms such as Aptonomy and Otsaw Digital. Another emerging player is Knightscope security, which provides oval-shaped monitoring bots for $6.50 an hour that can supplement existing human security guards. 

Efficient smart warehousing
A less surprising area of RaaS growth is in ‘smart’ warehousing, a key component in Industry 4.0. Automating supply chains to gain precious efficiencies and increase visibility is a major benefit of Industry 4.0 technologies, and companies such as Amazon and DHL have already deployed significant networks of IIoT devices and robot workers, such as Amazon’s Kiva robots. Indeed, ABI Research predicts that by 2025 more than 4 million commercial robots will be installed in over 50,000 warehouses, up from just under 4,000 robotic warehouses in 2018.

Given the relatively consistent physical layout of modern purpose-built warehouses (as opposed to more complex environments), RaaS systems are making considerable inroads, as they require minimal additional infrastructure but offer significant efficiencies. Companies such as InVia Robotics, Fetch, Kindred and Locus Robotics offer a range of units on a wide selection of terms, typically multi-year contracts that include monitoring and maintenance. Often the only physical change required is to change the stickering on existing shelving.

Pop-up car factories?
Industrial robotics firm Kuka has gone a step further with the concept of RaaS, linking up with automotive manufacturing heavyweight MHP and insurance giant Munich Re to launch a SmartFactory as a Service offering. Initially targeting the automotive market, the concept is that customers will get a robot-automated plant and vital supporting services in a single package, reducing risk and improving ROI and time to market - the latter being reduced by up to 30 per cent, according to the partners.

Big cloud gathers
Of course, the rise of cobots is not entirely a hardware story, but one of software too, whether in the cloud, at the edge or on-premise. The increasing number of RaaS toolkits on offer is indicative of the state of the industry. All the big software names are present and correct - Amazon’s AWS RoboMaker includes machine learning, monitoring, and analytics services, while Honda’s RaaS platform also focuses on industry collaboration.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been working on integrating the mature and popular open-source robotics framework ROS into Windows, announcing in May 2019 that Windows 10 IoT Enterprise now supports ROS, removing the need for developer workarounds. Unsurprisingly, Google is also investigating the RaaS market, announcing a ‘Google Cloud Robotics Platform’, combining artificial intelligence (AI), the cloud and robotics, originally due for launch in 2019.

Overall, it is clear that the RaaS market is seeing significant activity in key verticals, with others maturing fast. The attractiveness of the ‘service’ model when applied to industrial robots is particularly powerful, and highly likely to spread to other industrial verticals such as medical, food production and hospitality in the near future. The robots are not just coming - they are already here.

About the author: Martin Keenan is the Technical Director at Avnet Abacus, which assists and informs design engineers in the latest technological advances. With the IoT and Industry 4.0 changing manufacturing, Avnet Abacus helps designers find the best technological fit for their industrial applications, and accelerates the process all the way from idea to market.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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