Robotics has played a significant role in shaping the manufacturing environment for decades. Yet the impact of robotics in manufacturing has traditionally been directed at industrial manufacturing (think automotive manufacturing).

This is all about to change as the new wave of robotics are equipped with intelligence systems, designed for flexibility and mobility, armed with sensors to enable human and robot collaboration, and are priced more attractively for a broader base of buyers.

In addition, the maturity and evolution of todays IT landscape, has built out a platform to enable this next generation of robotics. Things such as the cloud, Internet of Things (IoT), cognitive computing, and advanced analytics have given robotics developers the tool set by which to more effectively develop and deliver innovative new robots to the market.

The excitement around this market is underscored by the 170% increase in venture capital spending that went into robotics between 2014 and 2015. Capital raised by start-ups, growth phase, and expansion phase companies in the field of robotics topped $1bn in 2015, indicating that the market is ripe for growth and that the wide spread adoption of robotics is imminent.

Todays robots are increasingly being built on artificial intelligence platforms, such as IBM’s Watson, in order to give them the capacity to solve complex problems beyond the scope of traditional robotics. Such platforms provide robots with the capability to sense and respond to their environments, recognize and differentiate between people authorized to work with them, and make adjustments to themselves when necessary to improve their performance. On top of this, IoT is providing robotics with a robust platform for sharing information relative to their performance and environments across a network of manufacturing robots, and with the business, enabling manufacturers to connect with the manufacturing floor in ways that have never before been possible.

Traditional industrial robots have been a bit more rigid in their movements and too dangerous for humans to work along-side. However, the new wave of robotics is more flexible in their movements and easier to program, enabling them to perform a wider variety of motions. For example, Baxter from Rethink Robotics, can have its arms physically moved to demonstrate the movement required, and will learn and replicate these movements. As flexibility and movement management continues to improve, robotics is rapidly becoming a viable alternative to manual labor in areas of manufacturing where traditional robots were too cumbersome to effectively operate.

Modern sensor technology is also playing a significant role in reshaping how robotics apply to new areas of manufacturing. Todays robots are equipped with sensors that enable them to better understand their surroundings, enabling safe and effective human and robot collaboration. For example, Kuka has designed the LBR iiwa, a robot that is safe enough for humans to work and collaborate with in a manufacturing environment due improved sensors and programing. The sensors and programing enable the robot to assess its surroundings and adapt its motion in order to reduce the risk of injury to the robots human counterpart.

As the functionality of robotics continues to improve, we are also seeing a decrease in the cost to purchase and deploy robotic systems in the manufacturing environment. The market for robotics is hot, which is bringing new competitors to the market, helping to incentivize robotics manufacturers to not only deliver more functional devices, but also to become more competitive on price. Going back to the example of Baxter from Rethink Robotics, these robots have a starting price of only $25,000, which for a robot with cognitive capabilities, two arms, and the mobile capability, is transforming the competitive environment for robotics.

IDC predicts that the market for robotics systems will growth at a CAGR of over 16% to reach over $38bn and that the entire robotics ecosystem (robots, software, hardware, services, and aftermarket components) will grow to reach over $165bn by 2020. Increasing adoption in manufacturing will play a significant role in this growth, as industrial manufacturing already represents the largest segment of robotics. However, as the functionality continues to increase and the cost continues to decrease for robotics, we will see robotic implementations penetrate into new areas of manufacturing where cost and functionality were historically barriers to adoption.

About the Author
As a research manager for IDC Manufacturing Insights, John Santagate is responsible for providing research, analysis and guidance on key business and IT issues for manufacturers with a specific focus on Supply Chain Execution. John holds more than a decade of experience, including advising leading oil, medical device and automobile companies on critical supply chain processes. Mr. Santagate blogs in the IDC Manufacturing Insights Community (http://idc-insights-community.com/manufacturing).