Investments in robotics R&D are growing, and it's about time

Industrial robots aren't just for automotive manufacturing anymore. Global R&D spending in the robotics industry is predicted to grow at a CAGR of more than 17 percent during the next four years.

Kuka robot

Photo: KUKA Aktiengesellschaft

Automotive manufacturers were early adopters of robots, but now any industry that uses production processes and systems can benefit from automation. Today's robots are flexible enough to handle a wide variety of tasks. They still build cars, but they can also handle more complicated jobs, which is why stakeholders in defense, healthcare, retail, food and beverage, and electronics industries are all considering adding robots to their roster.

To keep up with this growing demand, governments and private companies are investing in robotics research. A new report from Technavio predicts that the global R&D spending in the robotics industry will grow at a CAGR of more than 17 percent between 2016 and 2020.

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It makes sense that robots were initially used to manufacture vehicles -- the first industrial robots were bulky machines that handled the most dangerous, dull, and repetitive tasks. They were so strong that they had to be fenced off from humans, which was an essential safety precaution but also a huge limitation. There have been so many improvements to industrial robots since General Motors first introduced them to production lines in 1961. Today's robots are equipped with advanced sensors and grippers that make them practical for a much wider variety of use cases.

Analysts suggest that three main factors are contributing to the growth of global R&D spending in the robotics industry. The first reason is a race for robotics patents. Bharath Kanniappan, a lead analyst at Technavio says:

Robots are becoming more adaptive and flexible and may resemble the biological structure of human beings. In addition, they can be instructed and programmed remotely through the cloud. These advances and improvements in robotics technology stem from R&D investments. Since 2003, R&D investments in robotics have tripled the number of published robotics patents.

In fact, according to the research firm, a total of 120,000 robotics patents were cleared worldwide during the last 20 years. Japan leads the way with a whopping 31 percent of the total patents, followed by the US (19 percent) and Germany (17 percent).

The report identifies the second contributing factor as high demand for lower system engineering and installation costs, which encompass more than 75 percent of the cost of robotic systems. Robots used to be complicated to set up and they typically required infrastructure changes to facilities, such as embedding magnetic tracks into floors. The latest robots, however, are more self-sufficient and adaptable, so they can easily be integrated into existing operations. According to Technavio, "Key vendors, such as Yaskawa, KUKA, and Fanuc, are making heavy R&D investments to improve robotic software."

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is growing demand for industrial robots from non-automotive industries. "The automotive industry was among the first to use industrial robots. However, of late, such robots have gained momentum in non-automotive industries such as food and beverages , electricals, and electronics," says Bharath.

While GM originally used robots to lift and weld heavy auto parts, companies now use them for more dainty and nuanced jobs like picking orders . E-commerce companies like Amazon use robots for picking, Foxconn uses them to make everything from iPhones to noodles, and doctors even use robots to assist with intricate surgeries . Now that industrial robots are demonstrating the extensiveness of their abilities, R&D investments are increasing in order to discover the full potential.