It's an exciting time to be in robotics. Driven by increasing diversification in the industry, the $100+ billion global sector has been growing by leaps and bounds.
Industrial robots are no longer the exclusive domain of heavy industry or huge factories. Collaborative robots in particular have helped expand the enterprise customer base to include mid-sized and even small businesses in light manufacturing, materials handling, fulfillment, and beyond.
But are the good times coming to an end? We spoke with Chris Harlow, Director of Product Development at Realtime Robotics, about his predictions for 2020 and beyond. The takeaway? The good times are still rolling in some corners of the sector, but they won't last much longer across the board.
When it comes to short-term takeaways, Harlow has bad news for collaborative robots, or "cobots." Small, force-limited table top units have helped drive the spread of industrial automation beyond large factories. Cobot companies have been a small but potent spear tip for the sector, but that may be coming to an end.
"Demand for power and forced limited robots (cobots) has peaked due to reduced functionality and capabilities," says Harlow. "By 2025 manufacturers will no longer be investing in these systems, and traditional cobots will be replaced by better technology for the human-robot workcell."
Part of that shift will be driven by the increasing capabilities of traditional industrial robots, which have long been confined to cages but are starting to work alongside humans thanks to advanced vision systems and a host of other safety features.
"Industrial robots will become more persuasive as they will become significantly easier to program," explains Harlow. "As robotic automation expands into new industrial areas like logistics and electronic assembly, this will be essential to facilitate widespread adoption. The shift from script-based programming to graphical-based programming will be the catalyst behind this."
In the midterm, Harlow cautions that the regulatory environment could slow down the pace of progress.
"In the 2020s," he says, "the artificial intelligence and machine learning technology landscape will move from the 'Wild West' where almost anything goes to a more controlled regulatory environment. The introduction of mandatory legislation will inevitably slow down the pace of progress, and this will impact robotic automation. For example, AI and ML algorithms will face safety regulations, and this will hamper the speed of development of vision systems that are the key to AVs along with industrial robots taking on more complex tasks such as kitting or parcel sorting."
All of this puts a bit a damper on an industry that's enjoyed CAGR of about 26 percent recently.