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Jun 25, 2021 10 min read

Robots and the Rise of the Machines

Robots and the Rise of the Machines

Wiser! #20 (Premium): Strategic Insight on the global robotics market that is growing at 20% CAGR. With China leading the way and Robots deployed in many industries. Plus Nike case study

Insights: Premium Content

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Global robotics market

In the 2008 movie WALL-E, a solitary robot is left to clean up the garbage left on planet Earth. Set in the 29th century, after decades of consumerism, greed and neglect, Earth is uninhabitable.

And humankind has evacuated to live in giant colonies in space. (Which all sounds a bit like a Jeff Bezos vision for the future!)

However, back here on 21st Century Earth, the robotics market is doing a whole lot more than just cleaning up after humankind.

And the market is booming.

In 2020, the global robotics market was valued at $23.6 billion and is predicted to continue growing at a rate of around 20% a year and hit $74 billion by 2026.

It will come as no surprise that China is the largest market in the world, closely followed by Japan, South Korea, the USA and Germany.

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Hyundai buys Boston Dynamics

Earlier this week, Korean car maker Hyundai sealed its acquisition of robotics innovator Boston Dynamics. Hyundai sees itself as a leader in the field of robotics and have bought an 80% stake in the inventors of Spot, the robo-dog.

Hyundai's grand strategy is to create a "robotics value chain" that spans robot component manufacturing, construction and automation.

While the company has been exploring Star Wars-style walking vehicles that rely on robotics, it seems it's just as interested in Boston's robotic warehouse workers including box stackers Handle and Stretch, a robot that's designed to move boxes around the warehouse floor

Boston Dynamics was valued at around $1.1billion and Hyundai are the 3rd corporate to own them.

Originally formed out of MIT, Boston Dynamics were first owned by Alphabet (parent company of Google). Alphabet then sold them to SoftBank in 2017 for about $165 million. Softbank will retain a 20% stake in Boston Dynamics.

Boston Dynamics is most famously known for its robo-dog called Spot, which has been 'trained' to follow humans around.

Singapore deployed Spot in a park during the first wave of pandemic restrictions to help ensure people were social distancing.

Auto-maker Ford has experimented with Spot at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant to capture plant data and measurements to help retool the line. The robot dog walks around the plant to capture data about the plant as Ford builds a new engineering model.

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After annoucing the acquisition of Boston Dynamics, Hyundai released a new video of Spot and other robots that aims to creates a softer, friendlier image for the robots working for the good of humanity.

Hyundai's friendlier depiction of Spot shows the robotic dog leading a blind man through a park, Spot bringing medical reports on a tablet to a doctor, and a humanoid robot dancing with a young girl in a park.

It's all about crafting an image of robots to improve humanity rather than the often-repeated narrative of robots taking jobs.

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Robots in Healthcare

Factors like the ageing population and shortages of healthcare workers are driving the demand for assistive technology robots.

Companies like KUKA and their subsidiary Swisslog are specialising in robots for both inpatient and outpatient services, like the transport of patients in "man-carrying machines" and moving medicines and hazardous materials safely.

In hospitals, a disinfection robot from UVD Robots is used to prevent and reduce the spread of infectious diseases, viruses, bacteria, and other types of harmful organic micro-organisms in the environment.

The robot is safe, reliable and eliminates human error.

In Japan, which has an ageing population of around 36 million inhabitants aged 65 years or older, the country is increasingly looking for robots and AI to help caregivers in nursing homes to take care of older people.

One example is the Paro therapeutic robot. It looks like a baby seal and is designed to relieve stress and anxiety in patients and to treat diseases like Alzheimer's.

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Robots in Retail Fulfilment

With the proliferation of e-commerce, the need for automated warehouses is increasing.

And Amazon are at the forefront of robotic tech in the fulfilment centre.

In 2012, Amazon acquired warehouse robot manufacturer Kiva and now use their Drive Unit to automate warehouse operations (watch this on YouTube).

The Amazon family of robots now includes

  • the Hercules (for lifting heavy loads),
  • the Pegasus (the new generation of lightweight and nimble Kiva replacements),
  • the X-Sort (for shipping completed parcels out the door) and
  • the Robostow (which looks like a normal robot arm for moving items on and off shelving).

Outside of the warehouse, you have the Amazon Drone (for small parcel delivery to customers) and the Amazon Scout (for automated parcel delivery on the streets).

But it's not just Amazon who are into robots.

For example, DHL use robots from Locus Robotics. Locus reported that using their robots, DHL have seen a near doubling of productivity.

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Robots in Manufacturing

BMW has joined forces with chipmaker Nvidia to create "the world's largest custom manufacturing company."

BMW has 31 factories worldwide and each factory line can produce up to 10 different cars. There are over 100 options for each car, and more than 40 BMW models. In all, there are 2,100 possible ways to configure a new BMW.

Th BMW/Nvidia dynamic factory environment combines advanced computing, robotics, AI, and virtual reality software.

On a smaller scale, Automata, a robotics startup from London have developed a desktop robotic arm called Eva. It is a smaller, easier and cheaper robot arm than its counterparts and is capable of a range of manufacturing tasks, such as prodyct testing, inspecting, sorting and tending.

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Robots in Defense

Robots are being deployed to carry out unsafe, murky and recurring tasks with constant precision and regular accuracy. As well as doing those things that are dangerous such as bomb disposal, reconnaissance and fire fighting.

For example, The MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) is an armed robot that carries anything from non lethal lasers (designed to blind foes) to tear gas and even a grenade launcher.

The MAARS is a follow-up to an earlier model of robot called SWORDS, which saw deployment in Iraq a few years ago.

DOGO from General Robotics looks like a small toy tank, but it carries an actual pistol and is controlled remotely by special forces teams!

SAFFiR is a firefighting robot designed for US navy ships

Company Six (CO6), is a company with the tag line "delivering the future of safety". They are a venture-backed robotics and cloud technologies company spun out of kids robotics provider Sphero last year. CO6 are "dedicated to advancing the awareness and protection of those who put themselves into harm’s way."

Robots in the Kitchen

Samsung have developed a robot chef. The device works as an extra pair of hands in the kitchen.

When a real-life chef is working on part of a dish, Bot Chef can chop, whisk, pour or clean up as needed, based on skills it learns over time or that it downloads from Samsung's skills database.

If you want it to stir a pot of soup, you can download a "stirring" skill. Then all a chef needs to do is talk to the robot to issue commands.

Bot Chef can autonomously understand the location of objects, so the user can tell it where to find the spoon, and which pot to stir," Samsung said.

UK startup, Karakuri also has ambitious goals to bring robots and AI to the food industry with their robot chef canteen.

Meanwhile, London-based Moley Robotics develops robotic kitchen with oven, hob, sink, and two dexterous robotic arms that allow it to cook and clean. The company develops solutions for the restaurant industry, airlines, kitchen developers, and chef training schools.

Robots in the Street

The World’s first autonomous robot to detect potholes with AI is coming to UK streets soon. Startup Robotiz3d has developing the world’s first autonomous robot to patrol the streets in search of potholes.

In the UK, around two million potholes are fixed every year at an estimated cost of over £10 billion a year!

The solution from Robotiz3d will autonomously identify and localise potholes, characterise their geometry and collect measurements on the go. The robot machine will then automatically deposit sealing material and fix small cracks.

The idea is that the cracks are fixed before they evolve into potholes.

Meanwhile, Recycleye is an intelligent waste management startup (the real life equivalent to WALL-E!) that uses computer vision system with robotics to recover useful materials from waste.

Robots as Humans

Delta Air Lines have partnered with Sarcos Robotics to develop a mobile and dexterous exoskeleton straight out of Ironman.

Sarcos are a world leader in exoskeleton development and they have designed a battery-powered, full-body exoskeleton to boost human performance and endurance while helping to prevent injury.

This robotic suit is designed for employees to wear when they have to do heavy lifting.

By bearing the weight of the suit payload, the exoskeleton enables the employee to lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours at a time without strain or fatigue.

At the other end of the spectrum, Edinburgh-based Touchlab has developed an electronic skin that instils robots with a human-like sense of touch and feel.

Their electronic skin is thinner than human skin and can be wrapped around soft and hard surfaces to sense pressure and location and enable ultra soft grip by the robots.

It is difficult to imagine robots picking delicate berry fruits as well as people. But this is what Dogtooth have done with their intelligent robots for soft fruit picking.

They have built soft fruit picking AI-powered harvest robots that identify, pick, harvest, and also grade ripe fruits.

Also, capable of self-navigation between the crop rows. It is capable of picking at night times and at low temperatures and it utilises AI and computer vision technology for grading and navigation purposes.

CASE STUDY: Nike's use of robots

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While robots are already an established part of the manufacturing process for cars, electronics, and semiconductors, they have been much slower to take over production of sneakers and clothes.

One of the main reasons is that robots have a hard time handling the wide variety of soft materials used to make complicated products like a pair of sneakers.

A Nike shoe can have as many as 40 different materials in its upper alone, all of which need to be precisely stacked and fused together to make the shoe.

This is quite different from a cellphone plant or automotive factory, for example, where the materials involved tend to be rigid and fairly uniform, and robots can pick things up using a vacuum, magnet, or mechanical pincher.

In garment and shoe manufacturing, no single method has offered an ideal solution.

A vacuum may pick up pieces of leather, but it can’t deal with mesh. Mechanical pinchers fumble with pieces that have different degrees of flexibility and stickiness. Magnets, while great for handling metal, are useless when it comes to fabric.

But this didnt deter Nike, the number 1 sports brand.

Here are 4 ways in which Nike have adopted robot tech into their global manufacturing operations.

1. Grabit’s Stackit Robots

In 2017, Nike partnered with Silicon Valley startup Grabit to increase the speed at which its shoe uppers are produced.

Grabit has developed a new technology using electro-adhesion, which enables robot grippers to pick up and work with a multitude of objects and materials. The adoption of robotics in the retail industry has been slow, which is largely because robots typically struggle to handle and mold softer materials.

But Grabit’s technology seems to have overcome this hurdle, with the company claiming the robots can grasp an egg, soft fabric, or a 50 lb box with equal ease.

Rather than mimicking a human gripping motion, the robot is fitted with electrodes, which produce an electric field that can adhere to the majority of surfaces, enabling the grippers to pick up an object.

Nike has invested in several of Grabit’s $100,000 Stackit robots, which help to make between 300 and 600 pairs of shoes throughout an eight-hour shift. The robots are expensive, but Nike can now produce its shoe uppers in just 50 seconds.

2. Geek+ Smart Robots

In early 2020, Nike announced the arrival of same-day delivery in Japan thanks to a new partnership with smart logistics solutions provider Geek+.

The company’s goods-to-person robot series serves Nike’s distribution center in Chiba, carrying products to warehouse workers to reduce costs and improve warehousing efficiency.  Geek+ claim that the robots have increased Nike’s order pick rate from 100 picks per hour to over 300.

3. Flyknit 4D Knitting

In 2012, Nike debuted its Flyknit technology, which utilizes high-strength fibers to create lightweight uppers that fit “like a sock.”

As well as being exceptionally light, the material provides breathability and support, and it has a low environmental impact.

Today, the production of Nike’s Flyknit shoes is highly automated. A CNC knitting machine weaves the shoe’s upper into one piece, which can reduce labor costs by 50% and material usage by 20%.

The automated process allows for more frequent updates and improvements to be made to the shoes, as data is fed back from factories in China to designers and engineers based in the United States.

4. 3D Printing

Nike was a very early adopter of 3D printing.

The technology has driven innovation and product customization, and it enabled the brand to produce components that would have been impossible to manufacture using traditional methods.

In 2013, Nike Football unveiled the Vapor Laser Talon, its first shoe fitted with a 3D-printed plate, which was designed to provide optimal traction on football turf.

More recently, the company has leveraged computational design, which allows manufacturers to feed parameters and physical properties into a model to create designs that would be close to impossible for a human to produce. Nike used this technology to produce its Vaporfly Elite FlyPrint shoe.

In 2018, Nike claimed that its 3D-printing prototyping process was 16 times faster than any former method of manufacturing.

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