Mobility and Material Handling above All at ProMat and Automate
The Hannover Messe and ProMat 2019 events saw massive showcasing and deployment of robotics. However, unlike in previous tradeshows, there was very limited focus on advanced opportunities like mobile manipulation.
The biggest source of growth and advancement for robotics in the industrial space relates primarily to the use of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and, increasingly, Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) for material handling and intralogistics for warehousing and manufacturing. Between Hannover Messe, Promat and Automate, ABI Research came into contact with well over 30 providers of these platforms, and was able to see a few trends developing.
There has been a gradual fleshing out of the mobile robotics market as different providers find their places in it. The current breakdown of mobile robot providers (not including system integrators or the tech giants) falls into Autonomy Solution Providers (ASPs), mobile robotic platform providers, and application providers.
Autonomy Solution Providers (Balyo, Brain Corp, Kollmorgen, BlueBotics, Seegrid)
Brain Corp, Kollmorgen, and BlueBotics are the 100% ASPs that are not tied to any particular OEM and want to be solution providers with a wide range of solutions. Balyo is not there yet, and remains focused on forklifts, while Seegrid is markedly different from the other companies. Seegrid argues that everyone else is moving too fast across too many verticals, and doesn’t just want to have relationships with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), but wants to be end users’ most trusted robotics partner.
These companies are already proving themselves to be a force in the robotics market and are scaling up quickly to deploy large fleets of mobile systems: Brain Corp has 2,000 deployments, mainly referring to industrial cleaners; BlueBotics has 1,000; Seegrid has 600; and Balyo has more than 450. With 15,000 AGVs (and some AMRs) Kollmorgen is more established, but also more limited in the solution, with many of its products using AGV-standard navigation.
Material Handling Platform Providers (Fetch Robotics, Waypoint Robotics, Vecna Robotics, MiR, Omron Adept)
These companies make autonomous mobile platforms that carry out material handling for payloads between 100 kg to 2,000 kg, with some exceptions being Vecna’s Tugs which carry more. These companies provide flexible solutions, with lots of adaption available for customers across logistics, manufacturing and fulfillment. At Hannover, Asian providers Sesto Robotics and Siasun showed their competency, and Western companies need to make their mark fast as the industry becomes increasingly saturated. Some, like Vecna and Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), are developing AI competencies that will supercharge their push towards value-added services.
ProMat /Automate saw lots of these companies bringing out new and larger platforms, notably Fetch, MiR, Waypoint and Otto. 100–2,000 kg is the range that seems to fit material handling in logistics, after which the forklift players generally take over.
MiR currently are the most impressive in terms of strategy, as they are building equipment manufactures around them, like ROEQ and Nord Modules, and are well placed to make an ecosystem play. In general, they want to be a platform provider and leave the ‘robotics manufacturers’ in the dust, and as they move to warehousing alongside manufacturing, they just might do it. MiR have over 2,000 shipments, with over 1,000 sold in 2018. They have been more forthcoming in their figures than other companies and stand to gain as developers of auxiliary hardware build on them. They are relative newcomers to the American market but are well-placed to challenge not merely in manufacturing but also in logistics.
AMR Application Providers (Magazino, 6 River Systems, Invia, Locus Robotics)
IAM and Magazino are holding the fort on mobile manipulation and are not doing too much else. They are challenged by the implementation process, which for both takes a long time. These mobile manipulating players have less than 100 shipments all together.
Locus was one of the most prominent showcases, emphasizing their gamification tool to help streamline the human-machine interface. Meanwhile, Invia and 6 River Systems were also exhibiting, with a lot of purported success in the areas they targeted. While IAM and Magazino are pushing for a cutting-edge solution, Invia is using off-the-shelf scissor-lift technology and reaping the benefits of a more cost-efficient and ready-to-market product.
Mobile and Collaboratibe Robots Showcase at Hannover
AGVs and AMRs
There was a large AGV presence at Hannover Messe 2019, without about a 60/40 ratio between AGV and AMR providers. But while the AGV companies are reporting thousands of deployments, AMR’s are in the tens and twenties. Current pricing for a limited AMR platform is US$40,000, but this is just for the base-platform.
There were a lot of demonstrations of mobile manipulation, including from Bosch, Sesto, Siasun and others. But when probed, there was very little evidence this has been integrated into the actual workspace. Mobile manipulation remains far out, while the transition from AGVs to AMRs is only just beginning.
Speaking to some key Internet of Things (IoT) players and industrial automation companies, the debate over wired vs wireless factories has to mature before mobile manipulation and mobile robots moving beyond material handling becomes more mainstream. The vast majority of providers still want their robotic arms wired, and any mobile manipulation is likely to be auxiliary to the current setup of fixed industrial robots.
Collaborative robotics continues to be dominated by Universal, which has transitioned from a product supplier to a platform provider whereby end effector and software providers can intersect and get their products deployed through a centralized platform—namely, Universal Robots +. Competitors in the collaborative space are struggling to differentiate themselves and, when asked, there is a common range of points they use to say they are different:
All these traits have been accessible to end users for well over a year and have not done a great deal to dent Universal’s leadership-the company has sold 31,000 robots and has a 50-60% market share.
For collaborative robotics to achieve significant growth beyond forecasts, there needs to be a reassessment of the hardware. Either industrial arms need to become more collaborative through superior controls or tactile sensing, or collaborative robotics need to have superior hardware performance in speed, payload, and force sensing. Without these innovations, the concept of collaborative robotics will remain limited to a few key applications like machine tending, assembly, and pick-and-place (P&P).
Exoskeletons gained some serious traction over the past year, with four major providers on show at this Messe: German Bionic, Skelex, Ottobock, and Noonee. German Bionic is building a new IoT platform that incorporates some of the competencies deployed by smart wearable vendors in the industrial space. This industry remains nascent and is years from establishing the same interest as collaborative robotics, although by Total Addressable Market (TAM) it is a bigger opportunity.
5G Still a Way Off
Robotics companies and industrial providers continue to build strategic relationships with telco providers to bring advanced wireless capability to the manufacturing floor. The biggest example of this is ABB’s partnership with Ericsson. The 5G arena space played host to the two companies showcasing mission-critical mobile manipulation operations with an ABB arm, while chipset provider Qualcomm is building 5G into their robot-specific system on a chip (SoC) hardware. But beyond the demonstrations, there are no significant deployments to suggest 5G will become a key enabler for robotics in the next two to three years.
On the Horizon
Interestingly, one of the key robotics industry events that occurred during ProMat did not even take place near the show: Amazon acquired Canvas Technology, the Colorado-based developer of vSLAM technology, representing the completion of a series of acquisitions that give the tech giant full-spectrum AGV and AMR capability throughout the first-to-last supply chain.
There are still plenty of opportunities for other mobile robotics vendors, and when ABI Research returns to Hannover Messe in 2020, it will be interesting to see whether ASPs, platform providers, or application providers are becoming the dominant class of mobile robot companies. Application providers have more short-term success opportunity due to the discrete nature of their solutions, and given the range of pain-points affecting end users as they expand, but platform providers are shifting to cloud robotics solutions and will soon be able to leverage their greater flexibility.
ASPs stand to win huge market share in the long run. Through developing strong relationships with a wider range OEMs who want to automate their equipment, they are not restricted by the need to develop their own hardware from the ground up, and are increasingly able to tailor their solutions to different form factors and vehicle types. The question is whether or not they can translate this success into relationships with other robotics startups, which are currently very reluctant to cede responsibility for their technology stacks.