January 09, 2014      

Robotics goes big time at the biggest of big-time shows.

LAS VEGAS — For five days, it’s a magnificent bubble within which everything tech seems to flourish, even at the small, dowdy booths hawking mini-electronic innards for things no one, except the booth occupants, know or care much about.

Size doesn’t matter at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the largest (3.5 million square feet and 150,000 attendees) and arguably the most important electronics show in the world. Just being there for some is achievement enough.

Just being there can get you on TV and catapult yours into a “gotta-have” product adored by millions of frenzied fans and maybe even get you fitted for an IPO. The magic dust of CES has done it before and will do it again. For many, however, the magic dust brushes away by Friday evening. Then it?s wait until next year.

Robotics, having endured near-anonymity through many past CES venues, has finally broken through the bubble. It?s gone from mere curiosity to powerhouse potential.

Leadership goes to a 30-year-old technology sporting a fresh new look: 3D printing, known also as additive manufacturing. Suddenly, the machines that can custom manufacture anything from plastic teacups to working firearms to furniture to multi-story buildings are hot stuff.

Five years ago, there was but one 3D developer booth at CES, while 2014 has witnessed a special 3D Printing Tech Zone with 20 companies holding court.

“3D printing stocks have had an incredible year [2013],” enthused Kapital Wire. “The largest 3D printing manufacturer by market cap, 3D Systems, returned 153 percent in 2013, one of the top performing stocks on any index.

“Not to be entirely outdone, the second largest, Stratasys recently secured $30M in series 3 funding, spearheaded by the prestigious venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz,” said the wire.

“Investors in 3D printing stocks don’t see a pull-back any time soon,” the report said. “Quite the opposite, short covering swelled throughout Q3 into the fall. And despite sky-high valuations for many of these companies (3D Systems trades at 176 times next year’s earnings) new investors still remain eager to join in.”

iRobot CTO Paolo Pirjanian tabbed 3D printing as the most exciting and promising technology that he saw on the floor (CES has over 3,000 exhibitors). iRobot also has its own 3D printer in development.

That kind of intense spotlight causes media to prowl around CES looking for fresh news on other robot breakout products. Trace Dominguez and his DNews was one: he corralled Unbounded Robotics, Ekso Bionics, and Orbotix. Trace picked well.

Ologic’s CEO, Ted Larson, called Unbounded’s UBR-1 the most complete, real-world-ready robot at CES or anywhere else; while Ekso did nothing short of showcase its wearable robot, allowing a wheelchair-bound accident victim to walk again and amble around the CES runway.

As Ekso Co-founder and CTO, Russ Angold, said, Ekso’s robot has similarly aided two thousand others to walk again. Not even BMW’s vaunted, autonomous vehicles prowling outside could muster such magic.

Here’s Trace singling out his fav robots: