In 2019 we’ll see many incremental changes in robotics technology and business models that will keep us moving steadily forward. Some predictions will prove correct, while new and surprising developments will exceed our wildest dreams.
The new year is a time for assessing the present, making resolutions and looking ahead at what’s to come. With 2018 squarely in the rearview mirror, it’s time to assess the current state of robotics and predict what advancements we’ll see this year and beyond.
Hype Gives Way to Practicality
One of the fundamental shifts in the robotics industry in 2019 will be some dissipation of the hype surrounding it—and that’s a positive thing. People may enjoy watching videos of human-like robots that can do backflips or parkour, but when it comes to business productivity, it is practical, wheel-based robots that actually get the job done and add real value. In 2019 and beyond, robotic deployments will increase across multiple industries where robots can work collaboratively with people. These robots will complete repetitive and complementary tasks and therefore make people more efficient by allowing them to concentrate on more meaningful work. It may not look like Hollywood’s version of robots, but it will be practical, realand valuable.
Gross Manipulation vs. Fine Manipulation
There is a lot of excitement surrounding fine manipulation in robotics, but the fact is that we are not there yet. The ability for robots to successfully and consistently grasp small and/or fragile items is an important problem to solve and we have seen impressive progress toward that goal, but the units are still expensive to build, purchase and maintain. From an economic perspective, they’re not ready for prime time. People can simply still pick up and move these small items more easily and cost-effectively and will likely continue to do so for the next few years. Costs will come down and accuracy will improve, but any advancements will be incremental at best.
In the interim, you will see many more robots deployed in warehouses performing gross manipulation tasks—moving totes and bins or other large items—which will greatly reduce one of the biggest expenses in fulfillment operations: walking time.
The more a machine can perceive what’s happening around it, the more it can accomplish. Virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa listen for your questions or commands and learn through repetition what you really want. Sensors in your car keep you from backing into a shopping cart or drifting out of your lane on the highway. And Google’s Vision API can recognize millions of images and even interpret facial expressions.
In 2019, robotic “perception” will continue to improve, but again, only incrementally. Vision sensors, for example, are relatively cheap, but the computation power needed to process the information comes at a high price. Algorithms will improve over time, but the gap between human vision and computer vision will remain substantial.
Virtual assistants, however, will improvethings like Gmail suggesting replies or Alexa setting up calendar appointments. Mundane tasks will become more and more automated.
New Business Models: Robotics-as-a-Service
There are several cross-currents that are weighing heavily on business: an extremely tight labor market, the need to reduce costs and the fear of investing in fixed automation systems when product lines change so frequently. The Robotics-as-a-Service(RaaS) model addresses all these issues, and as a result, RaaS is poised to take off in 2019. Less than 15% of warehouses in the U.S. are currently automated, but adoption will increase dramatically, with worldwide sales of warehouse automation technology topping $22 billion by 2021. One of the biggest factors driving this adoption is the flexibility of RaaS systems and their ability to adapt to existing infrastructures. As a result, companies don’t have to spend millions in CapEx to achieve automation with a meaningful and quick ROI.
The reach of robotics will expand into new businesses and industries in 2019, particularly in areas of agriculture, where precision and quality control are vital. Urban farming, for example, requires micro-adjustments in light, temperature and humidity to produce viable crops on a small footprint. Wine and whiskey making require the consistent blending of ingredients and monitoring of aging barrels over months and years. And while many consider the production process an art, robotics and automation can reproduce that art and deliver more consistency.
Another potential market for robotics is the cannabis industry. Cannabis is a high-value crop that is typically cultivated indoors for security reasons. Automation not only reduces the potential for theft but also helps maintain the consistency and genetics of various strains to comply with state regulations.
Robots will not replace all jobs, but rather evolve them. ith robots will take over repetitive and mundane tasks into 2019 and beyond. And as automation becomes more pervasive as self-driving cars, trucks and even ocean-going container ships begin to come on-line, the jobs will likely move to new locations. For example, the job of “remote operator” will be among the hot new careers. If an autonomous truck in California encounters an accident or a washed-out road, a remote operator in Ohio can “take the wheel” and guide it around the problem.nstead of working alongside the robots, some people will be in another state or even another continent.
The world of robotics is an exciting one to be certain. It’s nascent, yet it’s already on an irreversible course to evolve the way we work and live, allowing us to spend our valuable time in more meaningful ways. In 2019 we’ll see many incremental changes in robotics technology and business models that will keep us moving steadily forward. Some predictions will prove correct, while new and surprising developments will exceed our wildest dreams.
About Lior Elazary
Lior Elazary is the founder and CEO of inVia Robotics, a Southern California robotics company founded in 2015 that provides the next generation of warehouse automation solutions. We are the developer of the first economical goods-to-person solution offered as "Robotics-as-a-Service." inVia is powering the future of warehouse productivity without disrupting the ecosystem of a business's operations.