Collaborative robot companies are broadening their market and influence

Sales of collaborative robots (co-bots) represent just 5% of the overall robot market with projected sales expected to reach over $1 billion by 2020.

By Frank Tobe, The Robot Report March 27, 2016

Sales of collaborative robots (co-bots) represent just 5% of the overall robot market. The sector is expected to increase roughly tenfold between 2015 and 2020, reaching over $1 billion from approximately $95 million in 2014. Some of the larges collaborative robot companies have big plans for expansion as they look to increase their market share not only within their sphere, but the robotics market as a whole with Universal Robots leading the way.

Universal Robots (UR) reported 2015 revenue of $61.44 million, a 91% increase over 2014, and net profit of $9.6 million before taxes for the year, up 122% over 2014. Unit sales, which began in 2009, have risen at around 75% each year to 3,500 in 2015. In 2015, Universal Robots sold to Massachusetts-based Teradyne, a publicly-traded provider of electronic testing equipment, for $285 million in cash and $65 million in options. 

Rethink Robotics and other competitors

UR’s growth represents just one co-bot competitor serving millions of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Other co-bots—particularly those that add mobility to their capabilities—are creating new markets for guides, kiosks, store assistants, inventory takers, warehouse and distribution center "gofors", and countless other applications including mobile personal assistants such as the SoftBank Pepper robot. The SoftBank Robotics Group is producing 1,000 Pepper robots every month and plans to double that number when they begin sales later this year into China.

Rethink has recently been developing an international distribution and integrator network for it’s Baxter and Sawyer robots. Along with Sumitomo Corp for Japan and Shanghai Electric for Eastern China, Rethink is working with startup Hunan Cothink Robotics Technology for Northern and Southern China. Cothink will have a capability to integrate, test and install up to 2,000 robots annually.

"Chinese manufacturers are facing similar challenges to their counterparts around the world, including rising wages and labor shortages," said Scott Eckert, president and CEO of Rethink. "In order to stay competitive in a global manufacturing economy, these companies are looking at collaborative robots to help them become more efficient and responsive to customer demand."

Other one- or two-armed co-bot manufacturers include MRK-System GmbH, F&P Personal Robotics, Bosch, MABI Robotic, Smokie Robotics and Kawada Industries.

The list of mobile co-bot providers is much more extensive and includes companies such as Amazon, Fetch, Grey Orange, Harvest Automation, MetraLabs, and many others.

A bit of history

The European robotics initiative for strengthening the competitiveness of SMEs in manufacturing, called SME Robot, was funded by the EU FP6 (Framework Programme 6) and started in March, 2005 (and extended in a successor project in FP7 to June of this year). It was chartered to determine ways to keep labor from being sent offshore to lower labor-cost countries and focused on the large number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) at threat of offshoring. 

The thesis was that if you empowered SME employees with robotic tools, the SME company would become more cost efficient and competitive and therefore not have to be off-shored. Thus the initial marketplace for co-bots was to SMEs.

The auto company factor

BMW, which utilizes roughly 7,500 industrial robots in their factories around the world experimented with co-bots last year with significant results. In a human-machine study conducted by an MIT professor, it was shown that teams made of humans and robots collaborating efficiently can be more productive than teams made of either humans or robots alone. They also found that they could increase productivity and also reduce ergonomically challenging tasks done by humans which increased morale and empowered workers with these easily programmed collaborative robots. 

In a parallel development at a Mercedes Benz factory in Germany, in an effort to halve the 61 hours it takes to produce a car, Mercedes is shifting to what it calls “robot farming”—equipping workers with an array of smaller, lighter machines and co-bots. Customization is key as buyers are choosing an ever-increasing array of options causing a need for flexibility not presently available from legacy robots. Humans (and their co-bots) are being added to provide that needed flexibility. While robots won’t completely disappear, future versions will be smaller and more flexible and operate in conjunction with human workers rather than be off working behind safety fences.

“We’re moving away from trying to maximize automation with people taking a bigger part in industrial processes again,” said Markus Schaefer, Mercedes’ head of production. “We need to be flexible.”

This trend toward adding humans augmented with co-bots back into the auto assembly process because of their ability to be more flexible than big industrial robots is being felt in studies at many of the car companies in Germany, Sweden and the UK. But it also broadens the co-bot marketplace by adding factories with more than 500 employees.

Bottom line

There’s no doubt that the collaborative robot marketplace will be growing exponentially over the next few years as price, safety, flexibility and ease of programming continue to develop. 

Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report. After selling his business and retiring from 25+ years as computer direct marketing and materials and consulting to the Democratic National Committee and major presidential, senatorial, congressional, mayoral campaigns and initiatives all across the U.S., Canada and internationally, he has energetically pursued a new career in researching and investing in robotics. This article originally appeared on The Robot Report. The Robot Report is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media,

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