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Investments ramping up in Industrial Robots

robotenomics_arm-institute

In Late December 2016 Rethink Robotics, supplier of Co-Bots secured an additional US$ 18 million investment. The new round, despite being somewhat short of the US$ 33 million sought as indicated by their SEC filing, included funding from the Swiss headquartered private equity investment firm, Adveq, as well as contributions from all previous investors, including Bezos Expeditions, CRV, Highland Capital Partners, Sigma Partners, DFJ, Two Sigma Ventures, GE Ventures and Goldman Sachs.

I think that Rethink’s Baxter and Sawyer robots are setting a new standard in advanced robotics for businesses of all sizes – the only downside is that Rethink sub contract the manufacturing of their robots which gives them less control of delivery scheduling and has possibly considerably hindered their over all growth, cash flow outlays and profitably. This could reflect, in a very hot growth market, the less than enthusiastic take up by new investors and indeed appetite for considerably increasing investment from existing investors. However in the coming months I would expect Rethink would secure the additional US$ 15 million they seek, maybe via Asian manufacturing partners, a region that is becoming increasingly important for Rethink as they endeavor to capture a larger share of the co-bot market.

In addition to Rethink’s new investment – a very interesting, relative, new comer to the industrial robotic manufacturing scene, the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing (ARM) Institute, a U.S. national, public-private partnership, has announced funding of US$ 250 million.

The U.S. Department of Defense awarded the public-private Manufacturing USA institute to American Robotics, a nonprofit venture led by Carnegie Mellon, with more than 230 partners in industry, academia, government and the nonprofit sector across the U.S. The institute will receive $80 million from the DOD, and an additional $173 million from the partner organizations.

Based in Pittsburgh, ARM is led by a newly established national nonprofit called American Robotics, which was founded by Carnegie Mellon University and includes a national network of 231 stakeholders from industry, academia, local governments and nonprofits.

The mission of ARM is essentially four-pronged. To 1) empower American workers to compete with low-wage workers abroad; 2) create and sustain new jobs to secure U.S. national prosperity; 3) lower the technical, operational, and economic barriers for small- and medium- sized enterprises as well as large companies to adopt robotics technologies; and 4) assert U.S. leadership in advanced manufacturing.

ARM’s 10-year goals include increasing worker productivity by 30 percent, creating 510,000 new manufacturing jobs in the U.S., ensuring that 30 percent of SMEs adopt robotics technology, and providing the ecosystem where major industrial robotics manufacturers will emerge.

These investments keep robotics on course to be one of the main investment areas for improving manufacturing productivity and indeed increasing jobs and corporate profitability.

The ARM investment sounds very similar to those of the EU’s public / private initiative announced in June 2014, albeit that is a Euro 2.8 billion initiative and less ambitious, but very worthy, target of adding 240,000 new jobs.

 

Photo: ARM Institute impact

 

New US Robot report – “This is going to create a whole new economy”

The document focuses on autonomous vehicles, eldercare, manufacturing and more

usroboticsroadmap

 

The new U.S. Robotics Roadmap calls for better policy frameworks to safely integrate new technologies, such as self-driving cars and commercial drones, into everyday life.

The detailed document also advocates for increased research efforts in the field of human-robot interaction to develop intelligent machines that will empower people to stay in their homes as they age.  It calls for increased education efforts in the STEM fields from elementary school to adult learners

The roadmap’s authors, more than 150 researchers from around the nation, also call for research to create more flexible robotics systems to accommodate the need for increased customization in manufacturing, for everything from cars to consumer electronics

The goal of the U.S. Robotics Roadmap is to determine how researchers can make a difference and solve societal problems in the United States. The document provides an overview of robotics in a wide range of areas, from manufacturing to consumer services, healthcare, autonomous vehicles and defense. The roadmap’s authors make recommendation to ensure that the United States will continue to lead in the field of robotics, both in terms of research innovation, technology and policies.

We also want to make sure that research solves real life problems and gets deployed,

said Henrik I. Christensen, a professor computer scientist at the University of California San Diego, and the document’s lead editor.

We need to make sure that we are making an impact on people’s lives. 

Unmanned vehicles and policy

The advances in the field of self-driving cars have far outpaced the predictions researchers made in the 2013 edition of the roadmap. But autonomous vehicles still have several obstacles to overcome, the researchers said. “It is important to recognize that human drivers have a performance of100 million miles driven between fatal accidents,” Christensen said. “It is far from trivial to design autonomous systems that have a similar performance.”

Self-driving cars need to become more like industrial robots, which can run autonomously for three years without human intervention, he added. Also, the many methods and technologies used in the field of self-driving vehicles need to be resolved into a single standard. “Systems integration might not get a lot of press, but it is essential,” Christensen said.

Finally, local, state and federal agencies need to formulate policies and regulations that ensure these cars can share the road safely with vehicles driven by people. Regulations and policies also need to be put in place for unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones or UAVs. When this is done, UAVs could revolutionize the way we ship goods by air, monitor the environment—and much more. They could help first responders during natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Researchers also need to get better at controlling swarms of UAVs and robots. “Currently, it takes a small group of people to run complex UAVs. This ratio needs to be inverted so that one person can control a small group of UAVs and other autonomous robots. Human-robot interactions should resemble the relationship between an orchestra conductor and musicians,” Christensen said. “Individual players need to be smart enough to take cues from the conductor and play on their own.”

Health care and home companion robots

A major wave of companion robots is about to enter the market, as the population of developed countries ages. For example, 50 percent of the Japanese population is over 50 years old. “We need to help the elderly stay in their homes,” Christensen said. “And robots can help us get there.”

To reach this goal, robots will need to have a better understanding of their surroundings and become more reliable. Existing systems are equipped with basic navigation methods. But long-term autonomy with little or no human intervention needs to be the goal. In addition, robotic home companions will need to be able to perform a wider range of tasks.

It is also essential that robots be easy enough to control so that they can be used by everyone. That means that home care robots, for example, need user interfaces that are no more complicated than a TV remote.

“This needs to be moon shot for robotics research,” Christensen said.

Manufacturing

In recent years, the need to customize products such as cars has increased dramatically. For example, a high-end vehicle can feature millions of different options, from the color of its seats to the configuration of its electronics. As a result, manufacturers have turned to increasingly sophisticated technology to drive assembly lines. This in turn has brought many factories back to the United States. In the past six years, the U.S. manufacturing sector has added 600,000 jobs. “Tremendous growth in robotics doesn’t have to mean job losses,” Christensen said.

But this expansion of robotic systems in industry must overcome two major obstacles, the roadmap states. Researchers need to develop user interfaces that will allow workers to operate robotic systems with little or no training. In other words, user interfaces need to become more like video games, Christensen said.

Also, robots’ manipulation skills need to improve dramatically, to match at least the dexterity of a young child. Right now, the most advanced robots have the grasping abilities of a one-year-old, Christensen said.

An Industrial Internet and the Internet of Things

For all applications, the core challenge is flexible integration of robotic systems with human operators and collaborators.  Researchers envision an environment where physical systems are linked wirelessly via smart sensors and smart chips, within an industrial Internet of Things. This will make it easier for robots to navigate their environment and work with people. At the same time it is important to design these systems to be secure so that they cannot be hijacked or used in cyber attacks.

Amazon is at the forefront of this movement and owns 40 percent of application program interfaces, or APIs, related to IoT—which are open source, Christensen said. “This is going to create a whole new economy,” he said.

Education

Robotic systems will dramatically change everyday life both in the home and at work in coming years. As a result, the public and the workforce need to be trained to interact with these systems. Training needs to happen at all levels, from kindergarten to 12th-grade and in trade schools before college. But most education efforts need to be focused on kindergarten through 12th-grade. Too many young people are dropping out of high school and will be left behind by this new economy based on robotics and the Internet of Things, Christensen said.

“We need to empower people to use robots,” he said. “We need to realize that most of the interfaces we design today for robotic systems aren’t easy to use.”

A shared robotics infrastructure

Researchers also are making a call to build a common, shared research infrastructure for robotics in the United States. The research network would expand existing sites, with a focus on testing autonomous driving, medical and health care robotics, micro- and nanorobotics, agriculture robotics, UAVs and underwater robotics. Each site would need about $3 million to be revamped into a shared facility.

 

The full report is available here…

 

 

 

 

Goldman Sachs summary on Cobots

Goldman Sachs cobots

 

Goldman Sachs (“GS”) has released a series of research reports in 2016 centered on The Factory of the Future.

The series which they call ‘Profiles in Innovation’ examines six technologies GS believe is driving transition, from “Cobots” to 3D printing to Virtual and Augmented Reality to the Internet of Things, and how these technologies could yield more than US$500 billion of cost savings.

As part of the GS team’s investigations they hosted a Factory of the Future field-trip for investors at Automatica trade fair in Munich, Germany on June 25, 2016. They subsequently provided a synopsis of their key observations.

Here are the top takeaways from GS’s field trip to Automatica related to Robots.

Universal Robots (“UR”)

  • Universal Robots’ cobots have a payback of 6 months and overall installation costs at <2x cost of robots vs. >3x for traditional robots. Cheapest UR cobot costs just €20k.
  • Universal Robots believes its sales network, brand and open-source strategy will be important to lock-in and outgrow the cobot market.
  • Amidst its own impressive growth, Universal Robots is preparing for tougher competition.

Universal Robots, Teradyne’s market leading collaborative robots business, hosted a booth tour. Key takeaways were:

  1. With the cobot market growing >50% pa in recent years, Teradyne (owner of UR) is targeting $90 million to $100 million in revenues for Universal Robots for 2016. UR believes this fast growth is unlikely to hit capacity constraints as its current Denmark-based manufacturing set-up can generate $500 million in revenues without the need for significant factory cap expenditure.
  2. The customer base for Universal Robots consists largely of SME enterprises in a wide range of end markets. As a result, its method-to-market and ease-of-use is key to achieving rapid organic growth. It uses distributors (which pick up servicing margin in return for broad dissemination) and a user-friendly set-up, eliminating the need for third party engineers to program the robot.
  3. Universal Robots believes that its technology is 2-3 years ahead of competitors (15 other booths at the fair were using UR cobots), however it is aware that the competition is increasing significantly. Leveraging Teradyne’s balance sheet they believe acting quickly and the use of their open-source platform (meaning that a wide range of components are easy to develop, described as an “App store” approach) is key to dominating this quickly evolving market.

Yaskawa

  • Cobot competition is picking up as Yaskawa entered the race and Fiat Chrysler’s Comau are pioneering solutions to concerns about speed.
  • Yaskawa demonstrated five of its new product launches, underpinning our growth expectations and mix improvement as it increases appeal in general industry.

Yaskawa hosted a booth tour and interview with its EU operations management. The company exhibited several new products:

  • 10 kg payload collaborative robots
  • 7-axis robots with the newest spot welding gun and smaller, low pay-load 
robots ideal for general industry.
  • Motologix software (bridging machine communication between controllers and PLCs (programmable logic controller) – based on VIPA (acquired German company PLC technology).

Goldman Sachs, who said they came away with a great deal of confidence in Yaskawa’s product mix, also offered the following key takeaways:

  1. Looking at collaborative robots specifically, GS believe the company has strong positioning as one of the ”Big Four” robotics company. They believe pricing is reasonable at €38,000 for 10kg weight handling, with sensors implemented in all axis and easy teaching system. Given that many start-up companies were introducing cobots with, in the GS teams opinion, inferior quality and yet similar pricing (€20-40,000 per unit), GS felt Yaskawa is well positioned to capture the growth of the cobot market.
  2. Yaskawa sold 25,000 robots in 2015; which GS estimate that Yaskawa has circa 10% market share (note these will be mainly premium robots), bringing Yaskawa’s total installed base to 350k.

Other general observations by the Goldman Sachs team

  • Despite the absence of a major global robotics player, the US (where robotics is growing double digit) is still at the forefront in automation, by developing the embedded technologies required.
  • Beware of the buzzwords: Most notably, AI and cloud robotics. Association for Advancing Automation thinks it might take decades to get commercializable AI products.
  • Machine vision is a >$2 billion market, despite in a current downturn, according to the Association for Advancing Automation.
  • Flexibility and efficiency are crucial in leading autos factories, as BMW produces a car in 44 hours with no two likely to be the same each day.
  • The average age of workers in BMW’s Welt factory is rising (43 vs. 40 a few years ago) as new technologies, such as exoskeletons, are increasing the longevity of employees.

Check out Goldman Sachs briefings and video for additional information.

3 areas robots will pervade by 2030

Rolls-Royce future control center.png

Buckminster Fuller said: “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” Here are some things I think will probably be true:

It’s probably a good time to invest in robot courier services

  1. Fleets of self-driving trucks will be on the roads worldwide by 2020
  2. Those same trucks will have a ‘delivery driver’ inside the cabin for at least another 10 years
  3. By 2030 all sales of new trucks will be self-driving
  4. From 2030 onwards a robot such as the latest generation Atlas will be in the cabin to handle deliveries
  5. By 2050 very few, if any, human couriers will be used, instead people will have new jobs coordinating the self-driving trucks, delivery robots and facilitation depots

Update – 10th May 2016. DHL recently hosted journalists, customers, and experts in the field of robotics at “Robotics Day” in their DHL Innovation Center in Troisdorf, Germany. The company says “Robots will be part of the future of logistics, and we’re excited to be on the ground floor of what that future cooperation will be like.” See the video here for more information…

By 2020 Sales of co-bots (smaller industrial robots) will explode

  1. By 2020 Co-bots will reach sales exceeding half a million units
  2. By 2030 most manufacturers will use co-bots to perform some tasks
  3. Co-bots, together with 3d printers will be decisive tools in bringing manufacturing local
  4. Co-bots will start to handle many of the tasks performed by larger ‘caged’ robots
  5. Co-bots will contribute to significant declines in manufacturing personnel, but productivity and profit gains will lead to manufacturers increasing headcount of personnel in other parts of the organizations, sales, marketing, data analytics, IT support, etc.

Military robots will be used extensively on the battlefield

  1. By 2025 major world militaries will use driverless tanks, driverless armored cars and other driverless vehicles
  2. This will free up military personnel to conduct reconnaissance and attack missions from behind a ‘safe zone’
  3. By 2020 smaller more advanced hand held drones will be used extensively on reconnaissance missions inside buildings
  4. Soldiers will be kitted out with lightweight exoskeleton suits to give them extra strength, agility and protection
  5. By 2025 Atlas style robots will be used on the battlefield as ground forces

And a bonus — one thing I think is highly probable although not robot related

By 2050 gas stations will disappear to be replaced by electric charging stations

 

Picture credit, screenshot of Rolls-Royce Future Control Centre

 

The facts about Co-Bot Robot sales

Findings – It may be a good time to be a manufacturer of Co-Bots, one manufacturer sold for up to 100 times profit, whilst another Co-Bot manufacturer attracted significant equity investment. Research indicates that sales of Co-Bots are set to increase significantly over the coming decade, causing productivity and profit gains for manufacturers but mass disruption for factory workers.

 

As sales of larger ‘caged’ industrial robots show signs of slowing down (according to the latest filed annual reports of industrial robot manufacturers), sales of Collaborative Robots, or Co-Bots, smaller, more agile industrial robots have been proclaimed as ‘booming,’ with headlines such as Agile Robots Will Rule and claims that demand for collaborative robots is growing exponentially:

“We see this market exploding right now,” says Henrik Christensen, chair of Robotics at Georgia Institute of Technology and executive director of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines.

Whilst Frost & Sullivan’s membership-driven’ Manufacturing Leadership Council indicates adoption of Co-Bots is ‘unstoppable:

More affordable robots that can work safely alongside human employees in collaborative ways will begin to transform many plant floor working environments in the year ahead…” and “the overall adoption trend will be unstoppable.

Co-Bot Predictions

During more than two years of detailed research, interviewing hundreds of executives and reading over 1500 corporate filings, to ascertain the impact of robots on jobs, production and profitability at the companies who have installed industrial robots, I consistently heard the claim that as industrial robots progress they take on tasks that previously only humans could – but with each new robotic capability a new opportunity for humans presents itself, although many of these opportunities are away from the factory floor.

It was also clear during my discussions that many of the manufacturers researched intended to increase their number of robots with the evolution of the smaller more agile Co-Bots.

Co-Bots are linked to accuracy, repeatability, quality of service, and further well-defined, quantifiable metrics. “These low-cost robots have the potential to increase precision and raise productivity by reducing the number of workers required.”[1]

Leaving aside the potential impact on jobs, productivity and profitability through installations of Co-Bots, and believe me it will be significant, let’s take a look at the predictions and numbers driving Co-Bot growth.

One prediction indicates that:

It is easy to imagine that co-bots could be on track to sell hundreds of thousands of units beginning as early as 2018.

Another prediction of the Collaborative Robot market prospects, by Barclays Equity Research analysts, estimates that global sales of Co-Bots reached approximately “US$ 120 million at the end of 2015;” and that the Barclays Analysts[2]:

Expect this market to grow to $3.1bn by 2020 and $12bn by 2025.

Barclays base their forecasts on current (2015) global sales of 4,100 units and an average selling price of $28,177 per unit; declining to a forecast $21,000 per unit in 2020, with annual unit sales of 150,000, thereby estimating a global market of $3.1 billion in that year.

They further estimate unit prices continuing to decline by 3-5% per annum through 2025 to circa $17,500 per unit, and global sales of a staggering 701,000 Co-Bot robot units in 2025 when they forecast a market size of around $12 billion.

Co-Bot analysis Barclays research

The Barclays predictions are based on current manufacturing headcount in the 5 core robotics markets (China, South Korea, Japan, US and Germany), using statistics from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Factoring in conservative estimates of GDP growth and productivity the Barclays analysts then estimated a potential robot penetration versus current manufacturing headcount as below:

Barclays Co-Bot market demand projections 

Note by Barclays analysts for ‘Other markets: We forecast 2020 sales of 30,000 units, rising to 70,000 in 2025, using the same growth and adoption rates as we do for Germany.’

Current Co-Bot sales – Reality versus hype

Universal Robots

The most successful Co-Bot manufacturer by far is Universal Robots (UR) of Denmark. Founded in 2005, UR shipped their first robot in December 2008. By the end of 2014 they had installed a total of 3,800 Co-Bots worldwide  and added an additional 2,200 units in 2015.

During 2014 UR moved into a new 12,000 square meter Headquarters and factory, seven times bigger than their former production facility, enabling them to increase robot production capacity to 150 robots per day as demand increases.

Between 2013 and 2014 Universal Robots sold 2,200 robot units at an average selling price of US$ 23,627.[3]

According to Universal Robots Annual Report for year ended 2014, UR had annual sales of US$ 33 million and recorded net profits of US$ 3,25 million.[4]

Robotenomics analysis of UR annual report

During 2015 Universal Robots was acquired by Teradyne, Inc. for an initial cash payment of US$ 285 Million plus an additional US$ 65 million against performance related targets (total US$ 350 million).

According to the Form 8K filing by Teradyne on 14th May 2015 “up to $15 million would be payable upon the achievement of certain EBITDA-based performance targets through 2015 and up to $50 million would be payable upon the achievement of certain revenue-based performance targets through 2018.”[5] Barclays Research analysts indicate that the performance related targets include “50% annual organic sales growth.” [6]

In 2015 they are estimated to have installed 2,200 robot units, bringing UR’s total worldwide installed units to 6,000.

Rethink Robotics

If headlines counted then Rethink Robotics of Boston certainly gained most traction, much of it due to the perceived ‘attractiveness’ of Baxter their two-armed robot with an animated face. However headlines do not always translate into sales.

Rethink Robotics have raised US$ 113.5 million in venture capital and equity investment since being founded in 2008, having completed a US$ 40 million series D round in March 2015[7], (although their SEC filing omits the first round and confirmation of share allocation in the last round).[8] The press around Baxter and capital injections, together with a stellar management team may be one reason the New York Times listed Rethink as one of the next billion dollar valued Unicorn companies.

However Rethink have lagged behind in sales compared to Universal Robots, with Rethink recording estimated 2015 annual sales below US$ 10 million and less than 400 Baxter robots shipped in 2015.

Since the company began shipping Baxter in 2012 a cumulative number of between 850 and 900 Baxter robots have been installed worldwide.

Average selling prices are a little under US$ 24,000 including warranties, pedestal, grippers and Rethink’s Intera software subscription. Rethink may have booked a little over cumulative recorded revenue of US$ 20 million which would indicate the company has been burning through much of the investors capital.

At least 40% of Rethink’s sales of Baxter have been to research labs and universities with the rest to industry. About one third have been overseas with customers in France, UK, Japan, Australia and Hong Kong being the main recipients and the balance in the United States.

Whilst sales of Baxter may have been below market expectations given the media attention, sales of Rethink’s new one-armed little brother to Baxter, named Sawyer have certainly been brisk. Our market research indications are that the company shipped a nominal number of Sawyer to date (less than 50), however it is expected that, based on current orders received, sales and shipments in the first quarter of 2016 for Sawyer will exceed the total recorded bookings in 2015 for Baxter and Sawyer combined.

Other manufacturers

The four main Industrial robot manufacturers ABB, Fanuc, Yaskawa and Kuka have all announced their own Co-Bot robots over the last few years, however many of these only began increasing the market awareness and delivery of their Co-Bots in 2015. The most prominent being General Motors use of Fanuc’s CR351 for stacking tires. Other manufacturers such as Kawasaki and Nachi and new entrants from China will come on stream strong within the next few years,

As the numbers in the tables below show, based on our research, annual sales of Co-Bots reached 3,670 units in 2015 with a market value of US$ 104 million. Unit prices differed considerably with target prices of US$ 100,000 at the top end of the ‘established’ robot manufacturers and special prices by the new entrants including special offers of buy 1 robot and receive a 50% discount on a second. Plus very attractive bonus structures to resellers for stocking Co-Bot units.

To date there are a little over 7,800 Co-Bots installed worldwide. However order books at current manufacturers together with prospects, sales leads and feedback from resellers indicate that 2016 will see more than 15,000 Co-Bots installed.

Robotenomics estimates of cobot sales

Note: ABB’s sales include those by Gomtec a company ABB acquired in 2015.

Based on current manufacturing capabilities, network and demand it is not too difficult to conceive that Universal Robots will achieve annual sales of 50,000 units and revenue of US$ 1 billion within five years. It is also highly probable that Rethink Robotics will catch up to UR and also achieve annual sales of 50,000 units by 2020, however to do that they will need to establish the vital manufacturing capacity. Rethink’s current order book for Sawyer would indicate that they are on track to achieve considerable growth in 2016 with revenue of US$ 8 to US$ 10 million in Q1/2016 and revenue of between US$ 36 and US$ 40 million with sales of up to 2,000 units by the end of the year.

In part two of this special report on Co-Bots I will outline, with examples, the industries and companies that are using Co-Bots, the return on investments that Co-Bot manufacturers claim, the future projections for productivity and profitability gains by manufacturers and impact on jobs.

Whilst I do not expect hundreds of thousands of Co-Bot units to be installed by 2018 — one thing is clear; Co-Bots are living up to the hype with tasks they can take on. Indeed there are claims that up to 90% of manufacturing processes are still to be automated – I expect Co-Bots will be a major driver in that automation.

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Baily and Bosworth. US Manufacturing: Understanding Its Past and Its Potential Future. Journal of Economic Perspectives Volume 28, Number 1—Winter 2014—Pages 3–26

[2] Barclays Equity Research – The rise of co-bots: Sizing the market. Barclays European Capital Goods Analysts Brorson, Maidi, Stettler, and Vos

[3] Analysis based on UR accumulated revenues between 2013 and 2014 (approximately US$ 52 million divided by 2,200 robots sold in the same period according to UR press kit, facts and figures. The company also declared sales of 1,800 robots from inception through to end of 2012)

[4] Universal Robots A/S Annual Report for the year ended 31 December 2014, approved at the annual general meeting of shareholders on 14 April 2015

[5] Teradyne Form 8K

[6] Barclays Equity Research – The rise of co-bots: Sizing the market. Barclays European Capital Goods Analysts Brorson, Maidi, Stettler, and Vos

[7] Rethink Robotics Completes $40M Series D Financing. New Investors, Including Wellington Management, Bring Total Funding to $113.5 Million

[8] Rethink Robotics, Inc. SEC Edgar Search Results, last accessed 11th January 2016

Cobots – people and robots working together

When people talk about the displacement of jobs brought about by the development of robotics, Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) and automation, they have a tendency to leave out the capabilities and flexibility of people and to impute a certain amount of agency to the technology itself. The technology becomes the focal point. The deeper problem is the idea that we just need more technology (robots, automation or petaflops) — as if technology is something you pour on grass like water to help growth — whereas in our businesses it is not technology alone that is the answer to increased productivity and efficiency, it is technology combined with people and knowhow that makes the big difference.

FRIDA from ABB

As sophisticated as these machines are, they are, at most, semi-autonomous. I don’t believe I will see a robot or computer have an original thought, the Holy Grail of Artificial General Intelligence, in my lifetime. Robots and computerized machines are tools, albeit remarkably sophisticated tools, used by humans.

Many organizations are beginning to see the advantages of cobots. Large corporations like Apple and General Electric and smaller companies such as C & S Wholesale Grocer are beginning or increasing manufacturing within the US through a combination of people and robots. Flextronics, a manufacturer of consumer electronics utilizing robots and automation, is famed for displaying a banner outside its factory in Milpitas, south of San Francisco proudly proclaiming: “Bringing Jobs & Manufacturing Back to California.”

Europe is seeing similar trends in banking, financial services and in the industrial and other service sectors. The European Union is investing heavily to help businesses build and adopt robots and forecasts robotics and related services will contribute an extra $80 billion in GDP per year by 2020.

Whilst sales of robots is growing, figures released by the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), the industry’s trade group, indicate a growing demand for industrial robots in the US with a total of 5,938 robots valued at $338 million ordered by companies in North America in the first quarter of 2014, coming in just shy of the all-time record set at the end of 2012. This increase in robot sales is having a positive impact on jobs, either creating them or sustaining existing jobs and helping to increase productivity and profitability. Jim Stogdill at O’Reilly Media emphasizes where I believe co-working is going:

“As automation takes the next layer of jobs at the current bottom, we humans are asked to do more and more complex stuff, higher up the value hierarchy.”

The potential uses for robotics, AI, and automation in business are great and ever expanding and helping to move jobs locally. But we must remember technology is here to serve us, not the other way around. It is the tech savvy company that successfully unites robots, automation and humans that will thrive in the ‘second machine age.’

Photo: ABB’s FRIDA (Friendly Robot for Industrial Dual-arm Assembly).