Robotics as a service examples include Qihan's Sanbot.

Qihan’s Sanbot is offered in an RaaS model.

November 16, 2016      

Since technology vendors have discovered that end users can be a source of recurring revenue if they offer hardware and software as a service, it’s no surprise that robotics as a service, or RaaS, is an expanding model.

Even if you’re not familiar with RaaS, you’re probably already using similar services for cable television, streaming entertainment, or Microsoft’s Office 365.

Most discussions around robots as a service focus on hardware robots, but that’s not the complete picture. The true scope of RaaS includes both physical robots and software agents.

RaaS is available for consumer robots such as drones, service robots, and autonomous vehicles.

In the case of software, RaaS mainly includes virtual agents and “AI as a service,” but it could arguably also extend to hardware robots.

Business takeaways:

  • Robotics as a service includes both hardware robots and software automation. RaaS is being applied to numerous industries, including healthcare, retail, and the law.
  • You can use RaaS as a way to plan your adoption and integration of robotics or as a business model for offering new products and services yourself.
  • RaaS is a way to enter new markets, but it will also accelerate competition.

RaaS use cases

What can RaaS do for you? Depending on your needs, there are many possibilities.

Think of an industry, and someone somewhere is looking to apply automation through RaaS.

Agoura Hills, Calif.-based inVia Robotics Inc. is offering robots on a rental basis for warehouse operations. Depending on your setup, the cost per pick could vary from 10 cents to $1.

inVia Robotics' systems help automate order fulfillment

inVia Robotics Inc. is offering its warehouse robots as a service via an RaaS model.

Shenzhen, China-based Qihan Technology Co. is targeting multiple sectors with its Sanbot service robot (see image above). A business can build its own version of RaaS for the healthcare, educational, and security markets.

Consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers has built on the new business model with “drones as a service.” From construction to insurance, if you need a drone, you can tap New York-based PwC. It has valued the commercial drone market at $127 billion.

On the AI side, Canadian students developed ROSS as a legal research tool. San Francisco-based Ross Intelligence Inc. is now offering AI as a service for law firms.

ROSS is layered on top of IBM’s Watson, which itself provides AI as a service. Several law firms are paying ROSS a monthly fee.

What can RaaS do for end-user organizations, from small and midsize enterprises to the Fortune 500? How do you begin?

For RaaS, start with your business strategy

Despite all the hype and hope, getting to the desired levels of efficiency and productivity with robots and AI can be complex. Suppliers, systems integrators, and end users must understand the skills required, how to stabilize an environment, and how to scale the solution.

Does this mean that only huge enterprises can benefit from robotics because they have the resources and everybody wants to work with them?

The answer is yes and no.

“Yes” because when it comes to robotics, large firms definitely have an edge. They may already be using robots, and they have the internal staff and processes to adopt new technology.

“No” because automation is rapidly advancing from complexity to sophisticated simplicity, as seen with collaborative robots and AI as a service. Soon, irrespective of size, industry, or geography, any business will be able to tap robotics.

RaaS is an excellent way to bring robots into your operation if you’re looking to “get your feet wet.” Or, your entire robotics playbook may be based on RaaS.

For example, you could use RaaS to try different robots before deciding whether to buy or build your own. You could also consume these services alongside in-house automation.

Assess the pros and cons of RaaS

What makes RaaS the right strategy for bringing robotics into your business? Assess both the potential benefits and challenges.

SoftBank's Pepper is another RaaS example.

SoftBank’s Pepper is available through RaaS for retail environments.

Robotics as a service is low-cost and low-risk. You do not need to invest as much in staff skills or infrastructure, although some modifications may be required.

When it comes to scaling, the partner (vendor) will do it for you. Deployment can be fast.

You can pay as you go and, depending on the type of service you use, you pay based on usage.

On the other hand, be clear who owns data collected by automated systems, where it is stored, and who can access it. This ties into the emerging industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

What about security or integration with existing enterprise applications?

Take a look at your needs today and tomorrow. How much flexibility or deep specialization will you need? Since robotics is in the future of every industry, and coexisting with robots is no longer an option, how much in-house expertise will your business need to become robot-ready?

How do you know if RaaS will work or is actually working?

It will depend on the problem you are solving with RaaS. In a warehouse, the measure could be “picks per hour” or “cost per pick.”

If you are using bots in a customer-service department, you can assess return on investment (ROI) based on not just the number of e-mails scanned or replied to, but also how many times the bots worked independently versus how many times they referred to humans for further assistance.

If you’re using RaaS as a strategy to bring robotics into your business, the ROI boils down to two things: productivity and cost — how fast tasks get done and how much money you are saving.

LD Products, a California-based online supplier of office products and printer cartridges, is using an RaaS offering from inVia Robotics to gain an edge in competing with larger firms. RaaS is allowing LD Products to ship products faster as well as become certain about costs.


More on RaaS:

Diversifying with RaaS

As a business model, RaaS can help generate new revenue streams. If you are a bank, a retailer, a healthcare services provider, or even a government agency, what is your strategy for integrating robotics?

E-commerce, self-driving cars, and service robots could soon be your main customer interface.

If you’re not ready to move from mobile commerce to “c-commerce” (based on self-driving cars), you could fall behind.

Perhaps, the entrepreneur in you wants to enter a new market — say, healthcare. Should you tap Qihan and its application programming interfaces? What AI assistants exist for pharmaceuticals, surgery, and logistics, and should buy one or build your own?

I expect many service providers to look to RaaS to extend their existing services and products.

Whether you use RaaS or not, whether RaaS is your robotics playbook or business model, whatever you decide to do, know this:

Whether you’re looking to robotics as a service as part of your adoption playbook or as an entirely new business model, remember this: Outside of manufacturing, robotics is still new, so there is no one right way to go about RaaS.

Do not waste time looking or waiting for the best practice. Others are jumping in, so act now and make sure your business is robot-ready.