Robotics in Industrial Automation
Industrial robots have long been used in the automotive, electronics, and many other industries, but they are now becoming an integral part of the rapidly growing warehousing and logistics market. And with artificial intelligence (AI) becoming increasingly prevalent in these systems, we’re seeing robots that can learn from their experience and become “smarter” and more efficient at performing repetitive tasks. To get an understanding of this rapidly evolving market, GLG sat down with Jerry Osborn, former President of KUKA Robotics and former General Manager of Robot Automation at ABB, to discuss recent developments and trends. Edited excerpts from our broader conversation appear below.
Could you provide an overview of the current robotics market, the biggest players, and how they are differentiated?
The biggest players — what we call the big four — are FANUC, ABB, Yaskawa, and KUKA. But in the collaborative robot market, Universal Robotics is by far the biggest. They have around 60% market share in what I would call the traditional markets, like automotive and other industrial automation. There are also some smaller players like Kawasaki, Comau, and Nachi that play a significant role. Kawasaki is particularly strong in automotive, especially given their relationship with Toyota. Comau has a strong relationship with Fiat Chrysler, but it’s not a particularly big player outside of that. Nachi is somewhat more of a bit player.
In the electronics market, which is the second-largest market next to automotive, there are some other players that don’t participate in some of the more traditional markets. Those would be Mitsubishi, Staubli, Epson, and Denso. They’re primarily in the smaller electronics market and small assembly markets. For the market overall, it’s a bit of an uncertain time right now. The market was down a bit last year in terms of projected growth, but that’s considered a temporary situation. COVID-19 has made things fairly uncertain, but it’s expected to be temporary and the overall market for automation and robotics looks really good.
What is your view on M&A activity in the industry, and where do you think that could be focused?
I would break that down into two categories. The first is the robotics companies themselves, and the second is systems integrators. When you talk about robotics, not many orders other than large blanket orders — think automotive companies — are placed direct from the robot OEMs. They’re typically ordered through a system integrator. So, in the past two years, the system integration market has had some consolidation. There’s a very large system integrator in the U.S. called JR Automation. They acquired a number of companies, smaller system integrators, and really increased their market share overall.
Last year JR Automation was purchased by Hitachi. In addition, companies that weren’t traditionally involved in system integration are entering that market. Teradyne acquired Universal Robotics, and also a company called Mobile Industrial Robots. We’ll likely see that continue, both on the system integration side and on the robotics side.
On the robotics side. I think it’ll be more on the emerging technologies, like the AI companies, companies that have unique safety technology, that are startups and have some unique innovative technology that’s valuable to the robot manufacturer.
Could you provide a bit of an overview of the different segments within industrial automation?
Automotive is the largest market, and it is relatively stable. There’ll be some growth, but at a slower rate than the others, just because it’s such a mature market. Warehousing and logistics is growing very fast, which has opened up some new applications for robots. Collaborative and autonomous mobile robots have started entering those facilities. And even though it isn’t the robot itself, AI is really starting to take a foothold in these situations, so as the robots do their tasks, they can learn information and become smarter and more efficient.
Electronics is a different market. Product life cycles are much shorter than, say, automotive. A product life cycle in automotive might be seven years, whereas a product life cycle in electronics might be six months. Think of a smartphone or a tablet. One of the challenges in that market is there’s a fairly heavy capital investment up front to automate a production line. And then if the product changes six months or a year later, then the challenge is to be able to use that same automation, instead of just ripping out the entire production line, which is typically what’s done in automotive. So that’s sort of a unique dynamic, which has really driven the robot prices down in electronics.
Hospitals and health care is a big one as well. There’s a company called UVD that’s just going crazy right now because of the virus. They make robots that can disinfect operating rooms and patient rooms using UV light. I expect that market to explode. Surgical robots have been around for a long time, but the ones that have been around a long time, like the da Vinci robot, are not true robots. When a doctor’s doing surgery, he’s fully controlling the robot. But now we’re seeing applications where the robot itself is operating independently, just under the doctor’s supervision. I think that will continue to increase.
What are other new trends or innovations that you think might be underway that are going to impact the space?
I think there’s a threat to the collaborative market. There’s a technology being developed that would allow any robot to be “collaborative.” A company called VEO has developed a technology that can be applied to any industrial robot that allows it to be used without any safety guarding. They do that by using sensors that monitor any people entering the robot’s workspace. It can slow down and then even stop if the person gets too close. If that technology is approved, which is likely, it could be somewhat of a threat to truly collaborative robots because traditional industrial robots can move faster and carry higher payloads, but it still can require a smaller footprint in the factory and still be safe in terms of people working around it.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Another innovation would be AI, particularly in the warehousing space. There’s a term, “iterative learning,” that means you program a robot and then as it’s performing its task, it can learn how to do it better. This is prevalent right now in the warehousing market. As a robot picks something off the shelf, it learns where different products are. It can understand, as it gets an order, how to best sequence where it goes into the warehouse, and then also how to find the product and take it to its destination more efficiently.
About Jerry Osborn
Jerry Osborn is an experienced executive and advisor with more than 30 years’ experience in robotics, industrial automation, and advanced manufacturing in a variety of industries and application areas. Most recently, he served as Chief Operating Officer with Diversified Machine Systems, an industry-leading designer and American manufacturer of three-axis and five-axis CNC machining centers. Prior to this, he served as President of KUKA Robotics Corporation, a leading supplier of industrial robotics solutions for factory automation, and earlier in his career he was General Manager at ABB, responsible for managing business units that delivered industrial robots and factory automation systems to automotive OEMs and Tier 1 manufacturers and a diverse general industry base. He was also President of the Industrials Unit at Braintech, a leader in the field of intelligent machine vision and robot vision software.
This article is adapted from the March 27, 2020, GLG teleconference “Robotics in Industrial Automation.” If you would like access to this teleconference or would like to speak with Jerry Osborn, or any of our more than 700,000 experts, contact us.