January 06, 2013      

Any robotics investor prowling for insight into consumer robotics can forget the glitz and glam and frenzied high-tech hubbub that 3,000 exhibitors, upwards of 20,000 products and 133,000 attendees bring to the world’s largest consumer electronics show, the International CES. It’s way over the top with hoopla and the goings on are difficult to rationally process.

Six important technology themes flowing from CES 2013

Thomas Stuermer, a senior executive in Accenture’s Electronics and High-Tech group, sees six major technology themes at play at CES 2013: ultra high-definition TV; “Smart” cars, fitness and health monitoring, mobile apps, 3-D printing and convertible PCs. Robotics isn’t one of them, unless 3-D printing (additive manufacturing) is, as most consider it, a robotic process.

Given that, is there a redeeming something at CES 2013 that makes a robotics investor’s roundtrip airfare to Las Vegas, room and board, and mega-trekking around the Las Vegas Convention Center’s 3.2 million square feet a worthwhile endeavor?

Well, robotics may not be one of Stuermer’s big, emerging CES themes, but it is a big deal nontheless, especially in one particular consumer robotics category. An investor hanging out someplace like iRobot’s booth in South Hall 3 or with other purveyors of similar consumer robots can readily catch a glimpse of what the first-adopter, consumer robotics space is all about.

In a word, it’s all about cleaning, especially cleaning up after humans. Yard work and housework are two jobs that most humans disdain, dislike doing or don’t have time to do, and will spend heavily to have done by someone or something else.

In the case of CES, that something else are the show’s electronic, autonomous, wheeled or tractor-driven robots that either clean rugs and floors or windows or swimming pools or mow lawns, including one just recently unveiled that cleans roof gutters. These robot cleaners form a burgeoning part of consumer robotics that is barely five-years old yet has sold millions of products worth hundreds of millions of dollars–and is growing like a weed.

It’s a category sure to stop a robotics investor in his or her CES tracks

Senior analyst for consumer appliances at Euromonitor International, Lorenza Della-Santa, reports that the robotic vacuum cleaner market in Western Europe is now the world’s largest in volume terms, having overtaken North America in 2012.

“More significantly, she furthers, “Western Europe is also far and away the most valuable market. Already worth $434M, twice the size of North America, by 2017 sales in the region are expected to increase by a further 50 percent. At this rate, in five years time Western European consumers will be spending three times more than their North American counterparts annually. And although still a niche market, robotic vacuum cleaners have recorded the largest value growth in real terms of all small appliances in 2012.”

robot vacuums

Consumer watchdog, TopTenReviews, claims that robot cleaners are here to stay, citing the “Diffususion of Innovation” curve as proof (see chart) and saying that robot cleaners are, ?just past the innovators stage, moving into the early adopters stage. If a product were to bite the dust, it would be during this stage.

With real numbers in mind and the likelihood of a long successful product run, it’s an easy choice for robotics investors to avoid the underperforming little humanoid bots or mobile personal robots, autonomous vehicles or even the newly emergent telepresence products. All are inventive, nice, and in the case of the little humanoids, very entertaining, however, the real robotic moneymakers for the near future are the robots that clean things.

Projected sales in the U.S., which accounts for well over 90 percent of the North American total, are expected to grow by 5 percent annually from 2012 to 2017. That’s heady growth for most any category but still significantly lower than in Western Europe and much lower than in pre-recession U.S. (2008). In 2008, the US market entered a three year decline and it is not expected to return to 2007 levels before 2015.

Another comfort for investors is the company that these robot cleaners keep. The likes of LG Electronics, Samsung, iRobot, Neato, Vorwerk, TTI Floor Care (formerly Royal Appliances), Microrobot, Yujin, Karcher, Infinuvo and the granddaddy of vacuums, Electrolux have poured millions of development dollars and tons of business intelligence and analysis into the category for a reason: it’s a winner.

Some are pricey, like Kyodo’s robot lawnmower that pushes $4,000, but most are reasonable to low priced, e.g. the new Roomba 790 (iRobot) for $699; the Winbot window-cleaning robot (ECOVACS) for $400; the Dolphin Premier pool cleaner (Maytronics) for $997; right on down to a robot Dirt Devil for $99. See the top ten for 2013.

What’s next in the crystal ball?

Crystal ball gazing for a robotics investor, however, should not be on the products themselves but on the problem that the machines address: cleaning. That’s the hotspot that draws both developers and buyers.

Looking beyond the current crop of robotic cleaners, what’s next in the crystal ball that extends the robotic cleaning category?

If there’s a robot that mows lawns, what about one that collects leaves in the fall, mulches and then bags them? Moving the seasons further along, winter should have its own robotic sidekick for clearing lots of snow. In the realm of possibility, could there then be a 3-in-1 convertible robot cleaner that mows lawns, mulches leaves and cleans snow? Something robust with seasonal attachments for each of the seasonal cleaning chores.

Such cleaning only takes in housework and yard work, but what about personal care? Cleaning up a dirty scalp, face, teeth, etc. Panasonic is testing and near ready for commercial sales of its hair washing robot, which shows a step toward personal care robotics. With a worldwide hair care market touching $64B annually, a hair-washing robot is a logical marketplace in which to begin.

The future of bathrooms might even see a personal care robot station where one sits and is tended to by a robot in all matters of personal grooming and hygiene.

The same crystal ball might take robot cleaners and extend them even further by adding on diagnostics, e.g. lawn mowers that analyze soil for grubs and then apply pesticides; scalp analysis from hair-grooming robots; gum, tooth decay and tartar analysis from personal care oral robots.

There is virtually no end to the potential to the robotic cleaning category. iRobot’s Roomba has been around for ten years; the robotic cleaning category for five and there is still so much more that can be done.

There is much more by far that can be seen in the crystal ball of cleaning robotics than there is in all of the lights and showbiz glitz out on the Vegas Strip.

At this year’s CES 2013, don’t gawk at what’s there, rather, envision what should and what possibly could be there next year.