the collaborative robot market is set for phenomenal growth (part 1)

in rethinking robotics by Jim Lawton

Collaborative robot Sawyer works safely alongside human co-workers at GE Lighting in Hendersonville, SC.

Industry data insights: why the collaborative robot market is set for enormous growth (pt. 1)

Pick up just about any industry research report and you’ll find big headlines trumpeting the growth of the collaborative robot (cobot) market.

Dan Kara of ABI Research stated in 2015 that the sector is expected to reach over US$1 billion by 2020, up from US$95 million in 2015 – a tenfold increase. Barclays Capital forecasts the cobot market to grow from a current 2,500 units to 150 million units in 2020 – for a total $3.1 billion global market.

What’s driving this growth is a completely new way of thinking about industrial automation solutions, how a task is performed, and who/what performs it. Due to the groundbreaking work by Rethink Robotics, manufacturers, especially smaller manufacturers, now have a very different way to deploy industrial automation in the form of cobots.

“Collaborative” takes on a whole new meaning

Five years ago, the term “collaborative robot” didn’t exist. Automation referred to the big, fixed robotic arms manufacturers installed in assembly plants for high-speed, repetitive tasks. These traditional robots worked in caged cells and weren’t easily redeployed for new tasks.

Despite their limitations, this type of robot made sense for large manufacturers and their high-volume production runs – that is, if you could afford the automation system and the engineer who programmed it.

For smaller and mid-sized manufacturers with their lower volume, high-mix environment, traditional factory robots didn’t make any type of sense – economic or otherwise.

As new advanced robotic technologies were introduced, “collaborative” came to mean robots or machines that operated safely around humans outside of a cage.

But while safer, these robots weren’t truly collaborative as they still worked by themselves.

For Rethink Robotics, we wanted “collaborative” to mean “work side-by-side with humans while performing human-scale tasks.”

Sawyer and Baxter: a whole new way of thinking about automation

A data point that’s received a great deal of attention is the one from Boston Consulting Group. Their research has shown that although industrial robots have been used in factories for decades, robots currently perform approximately 10% of the manufacturing tasks, on average.

BCG estimates that by 2025, the portion of tasks performed by robots will near 25% for all manufacturing industries worldwide.

I think that percentage will be higher.

One thing I continually find interesting is how workers react to Baxter and Sawyer once the robots have been introduced into the factory setting.

With Baxter especially, people will dress the robot in a sports jersey. Others give the robot a different name. Customers create humorous videos, such as this one of Baxter going Amish.

Clearly, workers see these machines as friendly co-workers even though the robots’ face screen lacks a mouth and thus can’t smile at co-workers.

In fact, when we first designed Baxter, we did include a mouth, but customers reported that the robot was “smirking” at them. So we removed it.

“Give me a robot that’s easy to deploy using people on my payroll.”

Working with a “friendly” robot, one that communicates using facial expressions and that can be easily trained by anyone on the factory floor, has two huge implications – and it’s these implications which are helping to driving the growth of cobots like Sawyer and Baxter.

One, Sawyer and Baxter empower employees to find uses for the cobots that free them from boring, repetitive tasks.

And two, instead of seeing the robot as a threat to one’s job, people come to view the robot as a job-saver.

Give a worker a smart collaborative robot such as Sawyer or Baxter, and that person is no longer consigned to mind-numbing tasks, such as counting cups and bagging them for hours at a stretch. Now the worker is free to perform higher-value, interesting tasks that keep them engaged.

Once the robot is done counting cups, it can be easily redeployed to do something else.

Deloitte has predicted we’re headed toward a two million skilled jobs gap. You can grab a Millennial off the street, but this person isn’t thinking about working in a factory. Some companies can’t attract any person in any position.

Smart, flexible collaborative robots like Sawyer and Baxter change the game for small and mid-sized manufacturers. Instead of replacing people, they free up workers to perform tasks for which they’re best suited – while leaving the boring stuff to the bot.

With cobots, manufacturers can now rethink the definition of work – and change the perception of what production work will mean in the future. Learn more in Part 2 of this post.

To see examples of Baxter and Sawyer are changing how people work at customer job sites, visit the Rethink Robotics video gallery. And for more headlines, videos and news about collaborative robots and automation, drop by Cobot Central. Also, subscribe above to receive blog post alerts delivered right to your inbox.



About the Author

Jim Lawton

Jim had a choice upon graduating from Tufts University – chase a dream as a concert pianist or become part of the inaugural Leaders for Manufacturing Program at MIT. He chose the latter– dedicating his career to developing and delivering innovative solutions that improve the business of manufacturing. Internally at HP, and then at breakthrough start-ups in e-commerce, inventory optimization and supply chain risk management, Jim’s never once looked back. His charter today: capture the power of data and analytics to push the standard for world-class manufacturing higher—once again.

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