The robotics industry is on the cusp of a major transformation. Today’s factory robots are solitary precision instruments, mimicking the repertoire of capabilities of skilled craftsmen while repeating a handful of tasks thousands of times over. But future factory robots will likely have to be capable of thousands of tasks, performing each only several times, and they will work in collaboration with humans.
Furthermore, interest in nonindustrial robots is emerging at an even quicker pace, and new and larger marketplaces are opening up as never before. But that means some pretty significant shifts in design from caged robots to adjacent workers, from stationary position to portable motion, from programming intensive to easily trainable, and from connected to autonomous robots. Even as they work to improve upon their current industrial offerings, robotics companies are closely watching demand for co-robots, which are the safe, flexible, vision-enabled and easily trainable robotic assistants that science fiction movies made culturally popular.
Thus the reinvention of robotics is fundamentally a transition from industrial robotics to service robotics, and one that is demanding flexibility and versatility beyond what is presently available.
FACING THE MAJOR TECHNOLOGICAL CHALLENGES
The big industrial robot manufacturers are reinventing themselves in an effort to accommodate these changing realities. Companies such as Yaskawa Electric (Motoman), KUKA, Adept Technologies, and Bosch are fighting against technological challenges and against the clock to be relevant players in the robotics industry 2.0. However, companies face three major technological challenges that are impeding this shift and will require significant breakthroughs to propel the industry forward into the era of service robotics:
Grasping and manipulation in human-centered and open-ended environments
Learning through observation of human actions
Interaction and natural communication, including gestures and sounds
Examining the strategies and unique approaches of companies making this transition can lend insight into how manufacturers will overcome the technological challenges, position themselves among competitors, and bring new robots quickly to market.