Industrial Robotics market grows by 18%, leaders focus on IoT

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) reported that sales of industrial robots increased by 18% to a record $13.1bn in 2016, as a range of new industries started to buy robotics systems, leveraging IoT to create brownfield growth. Robotics companies are also partnering with IoT leaders and launching internal IoT development programs, heavily focused on analytics and diagnostics, in a race to lead in the further proliferation of IoT-enabled robotics.

The industrial robotics sector has been helped by an increasing demand for more sophisticated machines, that have more capabilities than simply welding car bodies and lifting heavy loads – able to also perform complex functions for electronic component production.

The growth in adoption of robotics has led to an uptick in the share prices of some of the biggest manufactures in the sector, including the Japanese groups Fanuc and Yaskawa, Swiss ABB and German Kuka – all of which expect Yaskawa have significant IoT product lines and investments.

Companies expect their robotic investment to last for 20 years, and are reluctant to invest in new products if they doubt their longevity. Backwards compatibility is critical, when they consider adding IoT technologies to augment their existing robotics portfolios.

Fanuc has partnered with Cisco, to use Cisco Intercloud Fabric (CIF) to connect robotic devices for its factory customers on a single software system called MT-LINKi. This allows the factory operator to monitor and diagnose the condition of every device individually, and third-party devices are also able to connect to the CIF system. MT-LINKi primarily enables factory owners to avoid expensive downtime and operate closer to maximum capacity, as IoT sensors on each device monitor its condition to enable predictive maintenance.

ABB has its own IoT platform called ABB Ability, which focuses on connecting all customer assets with sensors, to monitor their condition and conduct analytics in a private cloud application. ABB also supplies power and electrical equipment, and also leverages Ability across all its own products. The focus of the platform on the robotics side is to optimize production processes, and attempt to provide customer insight into improved planning for their production lines.

Kuka made a large investment in Munich-based Device Insight, a company that specializes an IoT platform called CenterSight. Device Insight will work with Kuka’s own IoT subsidiary Connyun, to strengthen its IoT portfolio. Kuka already has its own proprietary cloud-based software analytics platform called Connect, which again allows customer to view data from Kuka’s products on their production line – as it looks to move beyond selling just hardware, using this service component.

Kuka has also partnered with Microsoft, building a factory to manufacture Jeep Wrangler body materials, using 60,000 connected devices in the factory for automation functions. The connectivity enables constant monitoring and analytics of devices, to enable the plant to produce a car body every 77 seconds, with a continuous 24-hour uptime. The system is anchored by Windows and Microsoft SQL Server.

The IFR report also found that the mix of robots purchase has changed from flexible mechanical limbs to smarter machines that can work alongside humans. Collaborative robots, or cobots, are specifically designed to interact with people. AI-based speech recognition has the potential to further the adoption of cobots, as their interactions with humans should be significantly improved and streamlined.

ABB’s Head of Robotics, Per Vegard Nerseth, says the company is currently optimistic that the market is going to continue to grow over the next three years. The main driving sector for the industry has remained the automotive sector, however, electronics chiefly located in Asia has grown rapidly in recent years. Batteries, chips, and displays are seeing an increased use of robotics in their manufacturing, according to IFR – further cause for Nerseth’s optimism, as these products are expected to see large growth into the future.

In addition, the cost of robotics systems is falling, further encouraging new customers to choose to add them to their supply chains. The IFR has identified new areas of growth in robotic demand, including logistics warehouses, chemicals and plastics factories, and food and beverage plants.

Demand for robotics equipment has been continually led by Asia, which has seen the number of unit shipments grow from around 20,000 units in 2009 to close to 190,000 in 2016.

The other side to this growth is that the spread of robots undoubtedly has the potential to dramatically disrupt the labor market, with some leading business figures warning that machines will take human jobs. McKinsey published a report that found that some 30% of tasks in 60% of occupations could be automated.

The IFR also identified that difficulties in finding, training, and replacing skilled manual labor are also contributing towards a shift towards robotics – as humans more frequently choose to reject dirty and dull roles in the employment market.

However, there is currently little evidence to suggest robotics is damaging employment. Many of the countries with the highest penetrations of robots also have some of the highest level of employment and productivity. Three in every ten robots were shipped to China, the world’s leading manufacturing and industrial player. Chinese purchases of robotics grew by 27% last year, with robotics contributing towards an enrichment in employment, as some of the most unpleasant manufacturing jobs are removed.

Improvements in the sensors and software are making robots more sensitive, flexible, precise and autonomous. Software is increasingly driving improvements in robotics technology, and enabling developers to achieve more with the technology. When software peripherals and systems engineering was included the total cost of the robotics systems market, the IFR estimated the total size at about $40bn.

Advances in machine-vision systems, coupled with artificial intelligence and cameras, could allow robots to identify objects and learn from their experience, to improve system performance. Many believe that this will unlock the next round of additional value in the robotics market, and further speed adoption and the number of use cases robotics can appropriately be deployed.