January 25, 2013      

A number of analysts were disappointed that the iRobot booth lacked a groundbreaking new product release at CES 2013. Instead, the company boasted upgrades to its consumer products, which now make up about 76 percent of annual revenues. (The gross margin on those bots is superior to those sold by its defense segment.)

News this week, however, sees the company step firmly into the healthcare market with a new patent indicating that the 3-D printing industry is next on the list.

Shares experienced a healthy spike Thursday when the iRobot’s RP-VITA Remote Presence Robot received d FDA clearance for use in hospitals. The RP-VITA is now the first autonomous navigation remote presence robot to receive such clearance.

The FDA clearance specifies that RP-VITA can be used for active patient monitoring in pre-operative, peri-operative and post-surgical settings.

?FDA clearance of a robot that can move safely and independently through a fast-paced, chaotic and demanding hospital environment is a significant technological milestone for the robotics and healthcare industries,? said Colin Angle, chairman and CEO of iRobot.

The RP-VITA product is a joint effort between iRobot (who leveraged its open telepresence platform, Ava, into the robot) and medical market giant InTouch Health (who recently lost an intellectual property battle with VGo communications).

The RP-VITA is being sold into the healthcare market by InTouch Health as its new flagship remote presence device, while iRobot continues to explore adjacent market opportunities for both the RP-VITA and the Ava mobile platforms.

Will the robot ever see wider use than Intuitive Surgical?s DaVinci? It might, as the robotic telepresence market could command $13 billion in sales by 2017, according to ABI Research.

InTouch has so far sold its telepresence robots to more than 400 hospitals. Meanwhile, iRobot’s Ava platform recently ranked among Information Week’s “10 Medical Robots That Could Change Healthcare.”

Taking a bite out of the next billion-dollar industry

In another interesting twist, iRobot is expanding into 3-D manufacturing. On June 22, 2012, iRobot, in cooperation with Raytheon BBN Technologies Corp., filed a patent for a ?Robotic Fabricator?.

The technology is an all-in-one system designed to handle the manufacturing of any 3-D printed product from seed component to product assembly without human intervention.

In traditional 3-D printing, if the product to be printed requires an overhang, or becomes larger on a subsequent layer, a support structure is used and it need to be removed after printing, requiring extra processing and human involvement in the manufacturing steps.

Designs are also traditionally divided into individual parts for production and must be assembled by an individual after fabrication. As part of that process, connectors and fasteners are used to secure product components together and seams are created. Connectors, fasteners, seams, and similar interfaces are frequently a source of failure in the end product.

By removing the human element and reducing the number of necessary seams, iRobot argues that their automated system improves product quality while reducing the need for human labor and decreasing manufacturing costs

The patent describes fabrication centered around a six-axis industrial robotic manipulator that positions the product for manufacturing operations such as additive and subtractive manufacturing (3D printing, milling and drilling).

A secondary manipulator handles component pick-and-place and secondary manufacturing operations such as wire placement and hardware testing.

As an option, they suggest that the system could include high-precision sensors to measure parameters and characteristics of the device while the process is taking place. The feedback from the sensors would allow the system to estimate product qualities, such as tolerances, dimensions, and mass.

The fabrication machine may be used by factories, individuals or the military in the field for producing and repairing products. The processes, including FDM and Robocasting, will allow for products composed of numerous materials, including ABS, polycarbonate, silicone rubbers, urethane rubbers, and plastics, and low melting temperature metals, as well as combinations of these materials.

Reactions to news of the patent filing for a full printing and finishing device have been favorable, as a means of taking the 3-D printing process to a level that can handle the connectors, seams, and fasteners that lock the parts together.

It seems that just when analysts were ready to call the company stagnant for focusing on their consumer brand, iRobot is back to exhibiting the futuristic vision that made them a brand to watch out of the gate.