January 30, 2010      

ST Robotics Inc., based in Princeton, N.J., introduced its new Firefly industrial robot in November 2009. This release comes on the heels of a number of other announcements of industrial robots targeted specifically to small and midsize enterprises (SMEs), particularly in the manufacturing sector. This is a trend, and a major one, with all classes of existing industrial robotics suppliers participating, as well as newly emergent companies.

There are many reasons for this trend, but the overarching motive is that manufacturing SMEs are a sizable, underserved market in need of advanced automation technology. To date, most industrial robots have been designed for capital-intensive, large-volume manufacturing. These systems, which are costly, complex, and inflexible, are unsuitable for smaller manufacturers that require low-cost systems that are quick to install, simple to operate, and can be quickly reconfigured to support small production volumes. The need for such systems is so acute that a number of European robot manufacturers, including ABB Robotics, KUKA Robotics Corp., Reis Robotics GmbH, and others have partnered under the aegis of the SMErobot initiative to a create a whole family of SME-suitable robots.

The European SMErobot initiative for strengthening the competitiveness of SMEs in manufacturing is not alone in its focus on delivering SME solutions. Virtually all large industrial robotics companies, whose primary customers have been hit hard by the worldwide economic downturn resulting in a slump in demand for automobiles and electronics products, are looking to new markets to make up for a drop-off in sales. SME manufacturers are a primary target to make up the shortfall. Small industrial robotics suppliers, typified by companies like ST Robotics, are also reaching out to SME markets, largely because they are not already dominated by bigger suppliers. The next generation of industrial robotics suppliers, represented by companies such as the newly formed Heartland Robotics, is also looking to SMEs as greenfield opportunities.

Due to high cost, onerous setup, and high levels of complexity, industrial robots are not widely used in SMEs. The result is a loss of productivity for these companies and money left on the table for suppliers of industrial automation solutions. No longer will that be the case. The SME market for robotics manufacturing solutions is very large and extremely diverse, two factors that are only exceeded by the opportunity this market presents to solutions providers of all sizes and backgrounds that can meet their special requirements.