Robotics funding is pouring in, as telecom providers, hardware companies, and investors pin their hopes on increasing industrial automation. Big technology companies are hunting for the next innovative startup, while existing robotics companies continue to partner up to maximize market access.
The global robotics market will grow at a compound annual rate of 10.11 percent, reaching $82.7 billion, predicts a recent report from Research and Markets. Much of this growth will come as increasingly flexible robots spread from manufacturing to other industries, driven by the need to reduce costs and increase efficiency and quality through automation.
The report also noted that new products, partnerships, and mergers and acquisitions are likely. In addition, investors in industrial robotics are beginning to have more specialized options, while robotics incubators proliferate.
ABB acquires SVIA for machine tending
ABB Ltd. has acquired SVIA, a Swedish provider of automated cells for machine tending. It offers more than 800 products for manufacturing, which ABB will add to its portfolio of offerings for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and computer numerical control (CNC) machine users.
“SVIA already uses ABB robots across its innovative portfolio of machine-tending solutions,” said Pekka Tiitinen, president of ABB’s Discrete Automation and Motion division. “We co-developed ABB’s FlexMT robot automation cell, which can increase machine-tool utilization by up to 90 percent, compared to 50 percent utilization with manual machine tending.”
Manufacturers and utility companies currently use Zurich-based ABB’s technology. SVIA will become part of ABB’s robotics business unit, and their combined vision-guided and other systems will serve the automotive, plastics, and consumer electronics industries. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
ABB pitches the ‘IoTSP’
“Together, we will enhance growth through our strong commitment to customer focus and by providing integrated, complete solutions based on the IoTSP,” Tiitinen said, referring to the so-called Internet of Things, Services, and People.
At CeBIT in Germany this spring, ABB and Salesforce.com jointly announced their IoTSP initiative, which aims to connect data, customers, and services.
Last month, ABB demonstrated its new YuMi dual-armed robot, as well as laser-welding systems and FlexInspect product for automated inline 3D inspection. YuMi is intended to be a safe collaborative robot, and ABB and Salesforce plan to gather and analyze data from sensors worldwide to improve business processes.
ABB Robotics is also funding the IdeaHub incubator run by U.K.-based Venturebright Ltd. The industrial automation challenges offer funding, shared lab space, venture capital, and marketing support around “simplicity, intelligence, and digitalization” of robots.
In addition, ABB is offering online training for its FlexPendant and IRC5 robot controller to allow students to remotely learn the control and safety functions of its industrial robots.
Remote robotics training on the rise
Speaking of training, a Chinese robotics maker this spring bought a German vocational training school. Shenyang Siasun Robot and Automation Co. and a German consultancy formed the Sino-German Siasun Education Technology Group and acquired the Teutloff Vocational Training Education Group.
As with robotics worldwide, China is experiencing a shortage of skilled workers, and it hopes to take advantage of Tetuloff’s expertise in mechanical engineering and welding.
“We will not only make use of the training expertise of Teutloff Vocational Training Education Group, but also provide training in robotics and smart manufacturing that are in urgent demand,” said Fan Cunyan of the group.
New Zealand robotics firm on the move
But it’s not just the biggest robotics companies that are benefiting from increasing industrial automation. food-processing conglomerate JBS AB recently received regulatory approval to take a majority stake in Scott Technology Ltd. in return for $41 million in capital. New Zealand-based Scott Technology‘s revenue for the six months ended Feb. 29 increased 49 percent to $42.8 million, thanks largely to sales in Australia and Asia.
“The company continues to experience a significant increase in the level of enquiry for automation and robotics across a wide range of industries and geographies, driven by the increase in global interest in the need to boost productivity and to reduce costs,” said Stuart McLauchlan and Chris Hopkins, chairman and managing director of Scott Technology, respectively, in a statement.
JBS is in the midst of an international reorganization and is exploring the use of Scott Technology’s robots in slaughterhouses. Scott Technology is also in negotiations to acquire a German appliance manufacturer.
Japanese cobot maker raises funds
LifeRobotics has raised 5 million yen ($4.4 million) in Series A funding for its Coro collaborative robot. The Tokyo-based company had raised $2.2 million last year. LifeRobotics was founded in 2007 and demonstrated Coro at the International Robot Exhibition last December (see photo above).
Its patent-pending Transpander technology uses prismatics to reduce the co-robot’s footprint in manufacturing operations. Investors include GlobalBrain, Koden Holdings, Lead Capital Management, Mitsubishi UFJ Capital, Nippon Technology Venture Partners, and Omron Ventures. LifeRobotics will use the funding to expand its staff.
Beijing pours billions into startup funds
China’s government has directed $338 billion into startup investment funds — 10 times the amount spent on Chinese startups in 2015, according to Fortune. The country hopes that innovation will make up for its slowing economy, but there are concerns on how the funds will be managed.
SoftBank China Venture Capital (SBCVC) has raised $459 million for its latest technology fund, which will support 40 companies in China. SBCVC is affiliated with telecommunications and robotics company SoftBank Corp.
“With the newly established fund … SBCVC is also looking at a lot of companies in the Industry 4.0 space, robotics, applied Internet, and other technologies in the field of advanced industrial applications,” said Kathy Chen, chief financial officer of SBCVC.
Beijing-based Lenovo Group Ltd. has established a $500 million fund to invest in robotics, cloud computing, big data, and artificial intelligence startups. Since computer and smartphone sales have fallen, companies like Lenovo, Intel Corp., and Qualcomm Inc. have been hoping that industrial automation and robotics will revive processor demand.
Manufacturers in China should continue investing in robotics through 2020, said analyst firm IndustryARC.
More on Industrial Automation and Robotics Funding:
- Industry 4.0: Robotics Presents a Golden Opportunity
- Automotive Robotics Prompts Detroit-China Partnership
- Robotics Companies Garner Funds for Converging Technologies
- Robots Largely Unaffected by China’s Economic Malaise
- Cobot Makers Flex Their Muscles at iREX in Tokyo
- Intel Invests $67 Million in Chinese Tech Firms
- Dell to Invest $125 Billion in China for AI, Market Access
HP’s hardware gambit
Back in the U.S., HP Inc. this week also launched its own high-tech venture fund. Hewlett-Packard Co. last year split into HP Inc. for printers and Hewlett Packard Enterprise for services. HP Tech Ventures will support startups involved with 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and smart machines. It will start with eight staffers in offices in Palo Alto, Calif., and Tel Aviv, Israel.
All of these funds may counteract last year’s dip in robotics funding, but there has already been speculation that the robotics investment boom is actually a bubble that will soon burst. The amount of robotics applications and models on the market suggests that robots are here to stay, but there will definitely be volatility as some startups do better than others and smaller firms consolidate.