SANTA CLARA, Calif. – RoboBusiness 2018 brought together the top robotics and artificial intelligence experts in the heart of Silicon Valley for two-and-a-half days of keynotes, conference sessions, show-floor exhibits, video interviews, and networking receptions. Whether an attendee was a first-year newbie or a 15-year veteran of the event, RoboBusiness provided business intelligence and robotics takeaways on the state of the market, future trends to track, and how businesses can benefit from automation, AI, and analytics.
1. The expanding robotics landscape is bringing in new players
Not only are new robotics companies being formed on a regular basis, but they’re also entering vertical markets where automation didn’t previously exist. Even if they existed before, such as in automotive and electronics manufacturing, new forms of robots like collaborative robot arms or cobots are disrupting these markets.
Along with implementation and integration issues, business groups such as finance and legal, as well as government regulators, are starting to pay more attention to the robotics industry.
At RoboBusiness, attendees heard from attorneys who raised questions about potential legal and ethical issues arising from the growth of robotics and AI. They also received robotics takeaways on preparing systems integrators and other robotics companies to avoid disasters with implementations.
As these professionals begin to learn more about robotics, it will be important for roboticists and business users to understand rules, regulations, and best practices in order to make robot integrations smoother.
2. Most people outside robotics approach robots negatively
In a similar manner, most people being exposed to information about robotics usually see headlines screaming that robots are either going to kill humans, like in the Terminator films, or that they will steal jobs and put them out of work.
While most people within the industry have heard these arguments for years, the question still gets asked, especially by those not in the industry.
“I’m not saying whether robots will take jobs or create jobs,” said RBR contributor and geopolitical futurist Abishur Prakash. “But I am saying that governments around the world believe that robots will take jobs and create policies that affect your businesses.”
In discussing jobs, most within the industry cite statistics that show that robotics and automation help create jobs, rather than eliminate them.
Other speakers said robots are used to help eliminate “dirty, dull, and dangerous” tasks by workers, leaving humans to do the tasks they are better equipped for, such as using their creative minds.
Still, the robotics takeaways around the debate over whether fast-food workers would be totally replaced by robots was on the minds of several speakers and attendees at the show.
Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3, the parent organization of the Robotics Industry Association), challenged the notion that the future will soon include restaurants where the only workers were robots.
“There will never be a scenario where you go into a restaurant with no people [working in them],” Burnstein said during the closing keynote panel.
3. Safety remains top of mind across sectors
Because robots are becoming more collaborative to work with humans, whether on the warehouse floor delivering materials or on a production line, issues around keeping workers safe was one of the big robotics takeaways from this year’s show.
During his Day 2 conference session, “Working Well Together: The Risks and Rewards of Human-Robot Collaboration”, Jeremy Marvel from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) pointed out that because a robot may be called collaborative, it doesn’t make them completely safe.
“Collaborative robots do not exist,” Marvel said, but rather they have power and force limits that helps make them safer than traditional industrial robots. In addition, he gave examples where a robot that looks safe can suddenly become dangerous when it grabs something, like a knife or a box cutter.
“Inherently safe robot designs can easily be rendered unsafe,” Marvel said.
Groups like NIST and other agencies and associations are currently working on test methods and safety standards for new robot platforms, including robotic manipulation on mobile platforms.
Dawn Castillo, director of the Division of Safety Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), is working to collect safety data on collaborative robots and autonomous vehicles.
NIOSH initially conducted research on traditional industrial robots in the 1970s and 1980s, and it is now looking to advance the research to these new form factors.
4. Making robots easier to use will benefit everyone
The expanding audience of robotics users, whether in traditional markets or new emerging markets, combined with a labor shortage of skilled robotics experts, indicates that robots need to become easier to use.
While robotics companies have done a fairly good job at moving from computer-based robot programming to more graphical or gesture-based training, a common theme was that needs to be done to make sure that average workers can learn quickly how to use robots for their jobs.
Perhaps that’s one reason why Southie Autonomy was named winner of the 2018 Pitchfire startup competition. The company is developing an easy-to-use software system that can not only train a robotic arm to do a task quicker, but also works with non-technical users to allow them to program the robot.
Another company in the Pitchfire competition, Ubiquity Robots, is working on providing a model where roboticists can purchase a mobile robot with standard parts that they can customize. This could save up to two years in development time on a new robot application.
5. AI, machine learning, analytics at the early stage
Even though robots have been around for years, many attendees and speakers said we are still at the dawn of the robotics and AI era. This is especially true in the AI space, where machine learning, analytics, and deep learning are just starting to make strides in improving performance for autonomous systems.
In the industrial space, speakers and attendees were interested in going after the “low-hanging fruit” of gathering data and analytics from equipment for preventative maintenance. With downtime potentially costing companies millions of dollars, knowing when a part is about to go down can mean the difference between business success or failure.
Many companies are looking at the Industrial Internet of Things or Industry 4.0 as a way to generate more analytics and data from their equipment and factories.
In the session “Machine Learning: How Predictive Maintenance and Optimization Is Your Competitive Edge,” speakers noted that more than 60% of companies surveyed have either started or are planning to start an industrial transformation initiative.
At the pre-show workshop, attendees learned about how to formalize a data strategy around robotics and automation. At this session, speakers and attendees acknowledged that the robotics industry was still in its nascent stages in terms of gleaning data from systems. They also said that a lot of data remains in various corporate silos.
More robotics takeaways and coverage of RoboBusiness 2018 will be published soon, including video interviews with robot companies, speakers, and other experts.
Editor’s Note: RoboBusiness is produced by the events team at EH Media and Robotics Business Review; these observations are those of editors Keith Shaw and Eugene Demaitre.