Although the concept of modular robotics is not new, research firms have only recently studied the market for reconfigurable robots with multiple functions or features. Future Market Insights predicts that this niche will grow in the next few years.
“Some people call such robots ‘collaborative,’ but we’re focused on robots that can change arms or grippers,” said Nikhil Kaitwade, senior research manager at Future Market Insights. “The demand for self-adapting modular robotics in precision applications is increasing.”
The market for modular robotics will experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18%, growing from $4.7 billion (U.S.) in 2018 to $10.76 billion by 2023, according to Future Market Insights. The firm surveyed both vendors and end users, asking whether they were using conventional or modular robotics.
A Growing Segment With Established Players
“It’s a very niche segment, with a small number of robots right now,” acknowledged Kaitwade. “However, modular robotics are increasing at a higher growth rate than other robots.”
Applications for modular robotics include handling of parcels or precious metals, he added. They require high precision and flexibility.
“There are certainly established players, such as ABB, FANUC, KUKA, and Mitsubishi Electric. They have the lead when it comes to selling to the market and customer confidence,” Kaitwade said. “And some companies are developing components, like Honeywell, Infineon, and Rockwell Automation.”
“Startups and smaller companies such as Robot Factory and Vincross are pursuing multifunction robots for particular requirements,” he said. “We’re seeing budding players around modular robotics applications such as inspection, food processing, and e-commerce.”
Example Multifunction Systems
“In one recent case, a company was making a robot to inspect a site, remotely diagnose malfunctions, and also do some welding,” said Kaitwade. “It’s a matter of balancing technologies.”
“Another concern is getting results. Most collaborative robot arms can operate with a payload of only 5 to 15kg,” he said. “Robotics developers are looking at battery power, auxiliary supports, and magnetic couplings, all to reduce weight and enable cobots to work in more dynamic environments.”
The pairing of cobots and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) for mobile manipulation could also count as modular robotics if systems are designed to be truly multifunctional, Kaitwade said.
“In addition, it’s good if a robot can use predictive learning and run independently,” he noted. “When such robots are manufactured, for example for a pick-and-place operation, it’s important for them to be able to learn how to grip a variety of products when the production line changes.”
“Much of the latest buzz in the modular robotics market is about robots learning by themselves, but when it comes to complex uses or multifunction, we’ll still need human trainers,” said Kaitwade. “Integrators play a key role, perhaps even more important than the software.”
SME Expectations for Modular Robotics
One of the expectations for collaborative and mobile robots has been that they would enable small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) to more easily deploy automation. However, most cobots and modular systems are still being used in automotive manufacturing.
“SMEs are an area that has yet to develop,” responded Kaitwade. “They have a budget for automation, but not that much, maybe 3% to 5%. For small-scale enterprises, they have other challenges, such as scaling the operation and checking for quality.”
“Automation is not priority No. 1 for them — if SMEs go with robots, they will choose standard automation on the line for day-to-day activities at first,” he said.
There are also regional differences in the adoption of modular robotics, Kaitwade explained. “East Asia is already the leader in using automation. Small-scale manufacturers in South Korea have a propensity to adopt modular robotics.”
“In China and South Asia including India, they are more reluctant to do so because the labor pool is still relatively large and cheap,” he added. “Manufacturing is more organized, and demand is more developed in North America and Europe. As a result, modular robotics adoption is higher there, mainly for applications like e-commerce and materials handling. ”
Robotics vendors have been changing their approach, he said. “Most manufacturers are now promoting robots by mentioning the benefits for end users,” Kaitwade said. “End users need to be convinced of the ease of setup and compatibility. Then interest in adoption will be higher in SMEs.”
COVID-19 and Modular Robotics
Future Market Insights asked small and large companies about their levels of optimism, how much resources they would devote to adding automation, and what roles robots would play in their production. However, macroeconomic conditions have changed.
“We conducted the research for this report last year and predicted a double-digit growth rate,” said Kaitwade. “With the pandemic, we expect certain locations to focus modular robotics research and development on elder care and screening patients.”
“We expect that more funds for robotics research will be allocated to equipment for disaster response and healthcare,” he said. “While the IMF [International Monetary Fund] has predicted a global economic decline of 8% for the next two quarters, we see this market picking up again.”
“Prospects remain strong in manufacturing, e-commerce, and food handling, as well as in healthcare, elder care, and parcel delivery,” Kaitwade asserted. “It’s mainly in automotive and electronics manufacturing.”