Metal handshake: Shifting alliances highlight a new phase in maturing collaborative robot market

Soft Robotics brings some suppleness to the leader in collaborative robots

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Soft Robotics, which makes soft end effectors for robots that need a gentler touch, has developed a product line specifically for Universal Robots, the biggest player in collaborative robotics. It's the first plug-and-play Soft Robotics customizable gripper system designed specifically for Universal Robots, and the alliance suggests a new phase for the broader collaborative robotics (cobot) market, which has seen rapid year-over-year growth and is expected to exceed $4 billion USD by 2023.

That growth has come with increasing competition and shifting alliances between technology providers.

Collaborative robots (cobots) have made a huge impact on industries like components manufacturing in the last decade. Able to operate outside cages and alongside human workers, cobots are generally task-agnostic, comparatively less expensive than traditional industrial robots, and can easily be programmed for a variety of repeatable tasks.

But task-agnostic platforms can't do everything equally well and often require additional components for specialized jobs. Grippers and end effectors suited to manipulating a screwdriver may not be well-equipped to pass a beaker full of liquid to a scientist.

Soft Robotics creates soft robotic systems that can manipulate items with extraordinary dexterity and, when needed, requisite gentleness. Use cases include food and beverage and e-commerce. One of Soft Robotics' customers is a large pizza retailer.

"Our goal is to make Universal Robots easy for our customers to implement in any industry, for any application," says Anders Bo Rasmussen, Senior Product Manager at Universal Robots. "Soft Robotics shares this same philosophy, and bringing Soft Robotics technology to Universal Robots is a great solution for our customers looking to automate processes that require manipulation of items with the same dexterity as a human hand."

The technology partnership follows a three-way merger in the "robot hands" market. Perception Robotics (US), OptoForce (Hungary), and On Robot (Denmark) came together to form OnRobot. That company is led by former CEO of Universal Robots, Enrico Krog Iversen and has a stated goal of leading global development of end-of-arm tooling for the cobot industry.

Much like Apple and Android have found that their developer ecosystems and app marketplaces to be battlegrounds for market share, future cobot dominance may be defined by which company's platforms can perform the most tasks. The number of available end effectors for a platform is a rough corollary for how specialized it can be made.

The shifting alliances and new partnerships suggests a maturation of what's been a wild west sector. Because cobots are task agnostic, manufacturers like UR and its competitors, including Rethink Robotics and Fanuc, have had a lot of elbow room.

Those days may be coming to an end as the sector exhausts first adopters and focuses on growth across targeted industries.