Around the world, robots are selling at record levels. According to industry body the International Federation of Robotics, industrial robot sales passed a quarter of a million units for the first time in 2015, following five years of growth at an average of 16 percent per year.
Almost two-thirds of the world’s industrial robots are still found in just two industries – automotive manufacturing and electronics – but according to Tom Bonkenburg, Director of European Operations at independent supply chain engineering consultancy St. Onge Company, a surge in innovation in the sector is poised to dramatically increase their prospects for use elsewhere. That could transform the activities of engineering and manufacturing companies, where low production volumes and highly variable tasks have precluded automation in the past.
“Material handling and robotics has traditionally been a slow-moving sector,” he says. “The automotive industry buys so many robots that suppliers have been fighting each other over a few percentage points of price or reliability. They kept improving the gears and motors a bit, and bringing the price down, but the robot arms that make cars have been broadly the same since the 1980s and 1990s.
“Until recently, robots were blind, they were dumb and they didn’t do anything but repeat the same motions over and over again. Now computer power is finally getting to the point where advanced algorithms, combined with low-cost sensors and better vision systems, mean we can apply robots to tasks that were too difficult to tackle before.”
Often, those tasks are things that are easy for humans, but frustratingly challenging for machines, like identifying an arbitrary object on a shelf or conveyor and picking it up. Such capabilities are coming, says Bonkenburg, citing research efforts like Amazon’s “Picking challenge” competition, and Google’s work
using groups of “cloud robots” that learn how to undertake different tasks before sharing their knowledge with each other.