The Robotics Sector in 2020 and Beyond: Predictions from Industry Gurus
December 16, 2019      

A new year (and new decade!) will soon be upon us, which means it is time again for the time-honored ritual of experts and luminaries opining on what the future holds for 2020, and the robotics sector is no different.

Robotics Business Review reached out to a number of robotics and intelligent systems industry thought leaders and asked them to provide us with their predictions for the upcoming year and the decade following. In future articles, Robotics Business Review editors will give their thoughts on what is to come in 2020 and beyond.

A BOOM YEAR FOR MANY SEGMENTS

Ash Sharma, Research Director, Interact Analysis

Ash Sharma, Interact Analysis

“The industrial robot market will return to robust growth, with more than 400,000 shipped in 2020 – an 11% increase over 2019. In addition:

  • China will consume 1 in 2 robots sold next year.
  • Mobile robot (AGV & AMR) revenues will breach the $3 billion mark for the first time next year. More than 120,000 order fulfillment robots (excluding those by Amazon) will be installed by the end of 2020. A new market leader will take the #1 spot in our rankings next year – likely one based in Asia.
  • Investments in micro-fulfillment grocery stores in the U.S. will more than double, to over $100 million in 2020.
  • Piece-picking robots will be the fastest growing warehouse automation technology in the U.S., with growth of just under 100% in 2020.”

Rick Faulk, CEO, Locus Robotics

Rick Faulk, CEO of Locus Robotics

Rick Faulk, CEO of Locus Robotics

“Because robotics systems have become proven technology, we will see larger initial deployments that will have an immediate impact. Gone are the days of pilot programs, instead companies are confident in the technology and the anticipated results.”

 

VISIBLE OR INVISIBLE?

Richard Schwartz, CEO and President, Pensa Systems

Pensa Systems Richard Schwartz inventory scanning

Richard Schwartz, Pensa Systems

“We should see more robotics and automation in retail, but it will be less invasive and less visible. Robots will work quietly behind the scenes, helping store employees to be more efficient and spend more time with customers. Last year’s efforts were pretty brutish – more like a sumo wrestler in size and with bright lights, kind of Rosie the Robot incarnate. Next year’s robots will be working around people, in many cases by being nowhere near people, helping in the background.”


Fergal Glynn, VP of Marketing, 6 River Systems

Fergal Glynn mobile robot checklist story

Fergal Glynn, 6 River Systems

“Robots will become more public facing. Implementation of robots in behind-the-scenes locations like warehouses and dark stores have exploded over the past several years, but they are just beginning to gain traction in public settings. We predict large retailers and other businesses will continue to introduce more public-facing robots that can assist customers with finding products, connect them to staff, help store associates with buy-online, pick-up-in-store orders, and alert staff of necessary cleanups. These robots will not replace the store staff, but rather will supplement the staff’s work and allow employees to be more efficient.”

 

MORE ROLES/TASKS

Lior Elazary, CEO and Co-founder, inVia Robotics

Lior Elazary

Lior Elazary, inVia Robotics.

“We have already seen a steady expansion in the scope of tasks for which robots are being relied upon – this year alone, robots that were previously solely picking are now replenishing, cycle counting, and putting back returns and mispicks. In 2020, we’ll continue to see more responsibilities transferred to robots, including quality check and pack out, and other adjacent areas where companies were forced to rely on transient, temporary labor that is becoming increasingly scarce. We predict a shift toward a reliance on robots for all of the tasks normally assigned to temporary labor, which will lead to the creation of more full-time jobs for team members that oversee the automated work.”


Florian Pestoni, CEO, inOrbit.AI

Florian Pestoni

Florian Pestoni, inOrbit.

“We will see a rapid increase in multi-vendor deployments, combining service robots that specialize in different tasks in warehouses, retail stores, and farms.”

 

MAKE-OR-BREAK, PIVOTAL MOMENTS FOR MANY

Jason Walker, CEO, and Patty Katsaros, Director of Marketing & Growth, at Waypoint Robotics

Jason Walker, and Patty Katsaros, Waypoint Robotics

“We expect that companies doing pilot programs and testing will see the true strengths and weaknesses of competing mobile robots. We think they will conclude that a mixture of robots for different applications will be needed to meet their needs, and interoperability among mobile robot makers will be critical to success. As companies move towards deployment, they will focus their attention more narrowly on specific applications requiring more top modules and custom accessories. 2020 will see a reckoning for low performers and a sink-or-swim moment for the idea of third-party fleet managers.”


Vince Martinelli, Head of Product and Marketing, RightHand Robotics

RightHand Robotics' Vince Martinelli discusses robot startup lessons from Rethink's failure.

Vince Martinelli, RightHand Robotics.

“2020 will go down in automation history as a pivotal year for robotic piece-picking systems, as the technology passes 100 million picks on its way to the first billion. What once seemed like science fiction will be recognized as the new reality, supported by reports on how it transforms operations. Retailers of all types will begin factoring automated piece-picking into their order fulfillment strategies as they seek the right mix of ‘bricks and clicks’ and build the distribution network that balances micro and macro, local and long haul. Worker productivity will skyrocket as individuals begin to supervise growing fleets of robotic pickers. This automated piece-picking capability will drive down costs for a range of fulfillment models, including those managed by third-party logistics providers, thereby preserving margins as retailers compete to provide consumers a better overall experience, with buying options that are increasingly fast and convenient.”

 

COBOTS PEAKED?

Chris Harlow, director of product development, Realtime Robotics

Chris Harlow, Realtime Robotics.

“Cobots as we know them have peaked. Demand for power and force-limited robots has peaked due to reduced functionality and capabilities. By 2025, manufacturers will no longer be investing in these systems, and traditional cobots will be replaced by better technology for the human-robot workcell. Industrial robots will become more persuasive, as they will become significantly easier to program. As robotic automation expands into new industrial areas like logistics and electronic assembly, this will be essential to facilitate widespread adoption. The shift from script-based programming to graphical-based programming will be the catalyst behind this.”


Ash Sharma, Research Director, Interact Analysis

“Collaborative robot arm revenues will breach the $1 billion mark for the first time in 2020, capturing nearly 10% of the total market. The automotive and electronics sectors will generate approximately half of these sales.”

 

SHIFTING MINDSET IN ATTITUDES TOWARDS ROBOTS

Petter Kilefors & Ingrid af Sandeberg, Arthur D. Little

Petter Kilefors & Ingrid af Sandeberg, Arthur D. Little

“We are starting to see a shift in mindset, from ‘Robots are here to take our jobs’ towards ‘Robots can complement us.” As human-machine interaction is getting better and use cases refined, robots are used to complement humans in varying ways – from remote telerobotics or freeing up time to support highly skilled physicians, to replacing humans in extreme conditions, such as offshore wind park inspection, nuclear waste management, and shipbreaking.”

 

Joe Campbell, Head of Strategic Marketing and Applications Development, Universal Robots North America

Joe Campbell, Universal Robots North America

“With the U.S.’s now record low unemployment rates, we’re seeing companies consider automation more than ever before, but it’s not because they’re trying to replace humans – they simply can’t find them. Unfortunately, the situation does not appear ready to improve anytime soon, with 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day, and millennials not interested in joining the manufacturing industry.”

 

SMARTER GRIPPING, MANIPULATION

Felix Herger, maxon Group

Felix Herger, maxon Group.

“Grippers for robots or clamping systems for machining centers are getting more precise and smarter. In addition to their primary task of just holding a part, they will also act as measurement or monitoring system, and feed back information to computer-aided quality assurance (CAQ) tools.”


Kristian Hulgard, general manager of OnRobot’s Americas division

Kristian Hulgard OnRobot

Kristian Hulgard, OnRobot

“Going into 2020, end-of-arm tooling will continue to push the limits of human interaction. Modern grippers are so sophisticated that they can even handle the fragile silicon wafers used in manufacturing computer processors. Force/torque sensors help locate and detect an object’s presence for greater accuracy. These sensitive grippers will increasingly be used in manufacturing processes that require the application of a precise force to achieve high-quality results. Businesses that continue using traditional methods, such as fabricating unique tools for specific manufacturing tasks, are at a significant disadvantage going into a new decade because of the high cost and inflexible nature of this approach.”

 

MACHINE LEARNING, AI GROWTH

Lior Elazary, inVia Robotics

“We will experience exponential improvements in machine learning and artificial intelligence, as well as in component technology like machine vision and sensors. The same computer science fundamentals will continue to be employed, but we’ll learn more from real-world environments so we can identify opportunities to do things differently, and more efficiently. For example, the mathematics that informs Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM), which is the computational problem of constructing or updating a map of an unknown environment while simultaneously keeping track of an agent’s location within it, was actually developed in the 1700s. The full capability of this math wasn’t unleashed until recent years, when we had developed enough computing power to allow us to assess all of the probabilities. In 2020, we expect to be able to broaden our vision to see greater possibilities within ML, AI and other technologies, allowing us to identify new ways to deliver automation and open the gates to exponential growth.”


Jeff Burnstein, President, Association for Advancing Automation (A3)

Jeff Burnstein A3 2019 predictions article

Jeff Burnstein, Association for Advancing Automation

“Solutions leveraging the power of AI are already paying off in automation and manufacturing. AI will be the stitching that weaves together a new age of industry. Machine learning software can help robotic systems adapt to their work environments, rather than designing every aspect of the environment and processes to suit the limitations of the machines. These advances will enhance both productivity and safety, and lead to more applications involving true collaboration between humans and robots. With more and more connected systems featuring advanced sensor technology, AI can identify patterns in the data that are associated with breakdowns and other mechanical issues. This data will drive predictive applications, where AI can detect patterns that indicate a robot needs maintenance soon. It can automatically alert engineers to take necessary steps towards repairing a machine before it breaks down, saving companies costly downtime. AI-powered analysis of this data could also help businesses optimize their processes to improve quality and reduce waste. We also see machine learning being used by robots to teach themselves how to perform tasks more successfully. Ultimately these advances will lead to robots sharing that knowledge via the cloud, allowing robots to learn from each other, which will improve the effectiveness of robot technology and speed deployment.”


Amit Saini, VP of Enterprise AI Services, Noodle.AI

Amit Saini, Noodle.AI

“Every CEO and supply chain leader must recognize that prevalent systems are not only failing to mine actionable intelligence across the supply chain, but also introducing bias in decisions. They must become students of AI and machine learning to understand the math and science behind it, and how it will translate to their businesses.”


Thomas Visti, CEO, Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR)

Thomas Visti, CEO, Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR).

“AI will affect robotics a lot in 2020. We will definitely see robots become smarter and smarter. For our type of robots, it means they will become increasingly better at understanding and interacting with their environments.”


Max Versace, CEO and co-founder, Neurala

Max Versace Neurala Training AI RoboBusiness 2019

Max Versace, Neurala.

“Customizable approaches to deep learning will make or break AI applications. Traditional approaches to deep learning can be tedious and time consuming, due to the need for massive amounts of data that needs to be retrained over and over again. Moreover, data is often not available online or is confidential to one organization, so it cannot be combined to create massive AI systems. In 2020, we’ll see the emergence of new paradigms and approaches to deep learning to solve these challenges.”


Guarav Palta, Managing Partner of AI, Client Services and Solutions, Noodle.AI

Guarav Palta, Noodle.AI

“Manufacturing and supply chain organizations are constrained by deterministic rules-based planning and execution systems. Those systems will cause organizations to continue to expend the majority of their time and effort deciphering system-generated noise in their planning signals. That in turn will continue to drive billions of latent, suboptimal micro-decisions, such as adjustments, reallocations, expedites, etc. Combined, the impact of those suboptimal decisions will lead to more global waste.”

 

DEMOCRATIZATION, INTEGRATION

Fergal Glynn, 6 River Systems

“Similar to the democratization of commerce, fulfillment will also increasingly become a level playing field. Not every company can or will be able to invest in technologies on their own to streamline processes. In 2020, we will see more vendors working together to create access to flexible, affordable fulfillment automation solutions that empower brands of all sizes to more easily scale operations and meet customer expectations, without an outsized price tag that may compromise investment in other areas of the business.”


Peder Grejsen, technical sales manager, ROEQ

Peder Grejsen, ROEQ

“As we enter 2020 and a new decade, real efficiency in logistics automation will manifest itself in ways that address the ‘missing links’ in workflows. The previous decade ushered in the autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), during the next decade we will see increasing adoption of new robotics solutions that communicate smoothly with each other, closing the gaps in internal logistics … Automating the loading and unloading of mobile robots will help eliminate manual intervention handled either by fork or pallet lifters, or by employees. Adding the conveyor capability strengthens the employees’ work environment by taking over ergonomically unfavorable tasks, or by reducing truck traffic and noise … Docking stations mounted to either floors, walls, or machinery that work in tandem with carts carried by the AMR will see a surge in demand in 2020. Another industry trend taking off in 2020 is AMR transport of heavier loads, as manufacturers start to reevaluate their floor space. It’s a new emerging technology that has really taken off in the last year and a half, and will only continue to soar. After all, a mobile robot without a conveyor or top module is like a robot arm without a gripper.”


Rick Faulk, Locus Robotics

“In 2020, we will see an uptick in cross-platform robotic collaboration, where different systems will complement each other’s strengths to expand functionality and applications. For example, using mobile robots to transport items while arm robots pick/sort and pack e-commerce orders.”

NEW MARKETS, APPLICATIONS

Douglas Barker, COO at Energid Technologies

Douglas Barker, Energid

“New process applications like sewing and woodworking could see new growth due to increased capabilities of collaborative robots, and growing support from ecosystems. Medical robotics applications, surgical and non-surgical, will continue to see new growth.”


Richard Schwartz, Pensa Systems

“Robots and drones will become more commonplace in neighborhood supermarkets. As an industry, automation will play an increasingly visible role in solving problems impractical for those that ‘Manage by Walking the Floor’. This includes looking around and flagging what is needed where and when, like flagging popular items running out of stock, clean-ups, and other safety and security concerns.”


Joe Campbell, Universal Robots

“An emerging trend that will help break down the automation barrier even further is the emergence of higher order application kits to address specific application and market verticals. These are not turnkey 100% solutions, and they are not locked-down standard OEM products. Application kits still require some engineering to deploy, but they deliver more functionality and value, and allow the integrator or do-it-yourselfer to further reduce engineering time, cost and risk.”


Ash Sharma, Interact Analysis

“More than 10,000 robotic forklifts will be shipped next year – more than the whole of 2018 and 2019 combined. The difficulties in finding drivers, the need to reduce operational costs, and the enhanced safety are driving warehouses to adopt automated fork trucks faster than ever before.”

 

BETTER VISION

Jeff Burnstein, A3

“Embedded vision is bringing a whole new range of capabilities to existing products, combining image capture and processing into one device. Embedded systems are lightweight, consume lower amounts of energy, feature lean designs, and create opportunities for new functionality, making them perfect for integration with existing systems, as well as products such as mobile phones and computers.”


Douglas Barker, Energid

“Robotics path planning and motion control will become a critical component of vision-guided (2D and 3D) robotic systems and open up new applications in manufacturing. In addition, we’ll see 3D toolpath generation for CAD/CAM software targeting 6+ axis robots emerge, and support market growth in process applications such as gluing, deburring, polising, and welding, as well as larger-scale additive manufacturing.”

 

5G NETWORKS AND EDGE AI

Thomas Visti, MiR

“In 2020, 5G will bring us faster broadband speeds and more reliable mobile networks, but the true benefits of 5G for robotics development will come later. There is no doubt that 5G will add tremendous value at some point for smart manufacturing and for robotics development.”


Arnie Kravitz, CTO, ARM Institute

Arnie Kravitz, ARM Institute.

“In 2020, we will see the emergence and growth of edge-based AI processing in vision and path planning that leverages the new generation of AI chipsets, allowing greater robotic independence and flexibility for real-time applications.”


Florian Pestoni, inOrbit

“5G and advanced LTE for IoT will be embraced by robotics companies for connectivity, adopted in geographic pockets during 2020, with widespread adoption in 2021.”


Max Versace, Neurala

“With AI and data becoming centralized, manufacturers are forced to pay massive fees to top cloud providers to access data that is keeping systems up and running. As a result, new routes to training AI that can be deployed and refined at the edge will become more prevalent. As we move into the new year, more manufacturers will begin to turn to the edge to generate data, minimize latency problems and reduce massive cloud fees.”

 

ELECTIONS, REGULATIONS

Douglas Barker, Energid

“The growth of robotics in 2020 could be heavily impacted by the U.S. elections. While support for R&D spending among both parties has trended up since 2013, this support continues to be more evident from the Democratic party, with recent polls suggesting that the majority of Democrats support increasing spending on R&D, while only 40% of Republicans support an increase. We believe that if Democrats win the presidential race and a majority in the House and Senate, we will see increased spending on R&D, with a significant investment in early-stage AI and robotics. In addition, if more state races result in a Democratic governor and state legislature, education spending could become even more of a priority at the state level.”


Chris Harlow, Realtime Robotics

“In the 2020s, the AI/ML technology landscape will move from the ‘Wild West’ where almost anything goes, to a more controlled regulatory environment. The introduction of mandatory legislation will inevitably slow down the pace of progress, and this will impact robotic automation. For example, AI and ML algorithms will face safety regulations, and this will hamper the speed development of vision systems that are the key to autonomous vehicles, along with industrial robots taking on more complex tasks such as kitting or parcel sorting.”

 

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