The Robot Revolution – “Carpe Diem” or “Caution, Rough Roads Ahead”

By

Barry Braunstein

March 22, 2016

We’re in a very interesting period in the robot market – entrepreneurs and established companies are innovating and developing new ideas and products at     an increasingly rapid pace, the market forecasts continue to grow, VC money is trickling in, and the “hype” is getting fairly loud. All this is also creating concerns by many that robots will replace people, increasing unemployment, putting more families on welfare, etc.. Why does this feel like we’ve seen this movie before?

Robots are inherently complex – they can involve mechatronics, (adaptive) control systems, packaging, propulsion, power systems, vision, communications, etc., etc. These systems are typically working together in real time, and require an increasing amount of computational power. Fortunately, compute power continues to follow Moore’s law, and the supporting technologies such as LIDAR, HD Vision, and others are also becoming far more affordable and mainstream, providing potential price points for these systems that were unheard of even 5 years ago. There is an open source robotic operating system that is evolving as well, which (as history has shown) will also accelerate innovation and development.

Yet the “killer” application(s) has yet to emerge – robotics companies are still trying to find the sweet spot between their offerings and what the market really wants. Some, like Kiva Systems, have already been acquired for large valuations, further fueling the momentum for other companies (and investors) to develop products with the potential promise/hype of a huge payday.

Robots are not new – they’ve been around in 1 form or another since the 1960’s in the automotive manufacturing sector. What is new is that these machines are becoming easier to implement, are coming down in cost, and are generally becoming more “friendly” (e.g., Rethink Robotics Baxter and Sawyer are great examples of this). The idea of replacing (or augmenting) manual labor is very appealing – less downtime, better repeatability, (projected) lower overall costs over time, etc., all of which will lead to higher overall productivity, more consistency in whatever process they’re being used for, and reducing the need for people to do tasks that are either boring, have little value add, are potentially dangerous, etc.

What is also new are the myriad of applications/solutions being developed – and herein lies the challenge – which ones will win, or lose, or just bump along? Are the market forecasts correct, or is this another technology like 3D TV, where the hype and market forecasts vs. reality never aligned (for a variety of reasons)? And how can these companies and the industry achieve success? A number things must happen - and the good news is many already are:

Robotics companies are “learning” more about what the market wants/needs, in large part thru trial and error. Identifying real needs (vs. nice to have’s) with real ROI’s, and understanding where robots fit and where they’re just not ready is critical. While there are studies being shown that only 10% if the potential applications for robots are being addressed, it’s important to really understand why that number is low, and how much of that market can be addressed by what is available today (or in the near future). And what are the major factors that would drive a higher level of adoption? Along with this, customers don’t always know what they want (the iPhone is an excellent example of this – no one really knew they wanted/needed one until Steve Jobs/Apple created one); the more successful companies will have the vision to develop products that meet needs people/companies don’t necessarily know they have.

Many markets (particularly technology based ones) benefit and grow with the evolution of some sort of standardized platforms that are used as building blocks. We’re seeing early signs of this trend in robotics with the creation of the robot operating system. Other companies are no doubt developing boards and systems that contain the necessary hardware to support the control and processing power required by robotic systems.

But entrepreneurs need to be realistic and critical of their ideas and creations, and do the work that goes beyond the hype and passion they have for their idea before they invest time and money in creating the next big thing in robots. Asking the basic questions of

What problem(s) are you trying to solve and are they worth solving?

What are the barriers of entry/cost of change for your potential customers and understanding their biggest concerns?

What are the real requirements of the product (both today and in the 2+ year future when your product will realistically hit the market)?

What are the financial implications on the customer side of implementing a solution?

What are the non-financial implications that could hinder the adoption?

How are you going to assist them in adopting your platform?

Other things to consider are more generic in nature but still applicable – for example, what is your company’s IP or real value add? Does it make sense to build a team to develop the non-real value add piece or outsource that development (I have a strong bias here!).

While it may be hard to justify the effort while you’re spending all your energy getting your first prototype working, be sure to build a plan around transitioning your early “feasibility” prototype to something that can be manufactured and meet the cost/performance targets. Leaving this as an afterthought can lead to significant delays, which reduces your credibility with those early adopter customers you’ve been working hard with.

Will robots put people out of work? The truth of the matter is they already have and will continue to do so – but we as a society will adapt over time, and this is a necessary component of growth. New jobs will be created and retraining of those displaced workers can help those whose jobs were lost. The robot revolution can and will ultimately save lives and enhance others – but we must proceed with “eyes wide open” and temper the hype with a critical “business” eye in order to succeed.

Here are some recent examples of innovation in Robotics:

The Robot Postman: http://robotrabbi.com/2015/11/06/robopost/

Interesting new robots: http://robotrabbi.com/2016/03/18/sxsw/

About the author

Barry is responsible for Acorn’s sales and business development activities in the eastern United States.