Robots as a Service
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Fleets of robots aren’t just for enterprise companies anymore—in fact, they may be in your business’s future sooner than you think. As the Industrial Internet of Things becomes more commonplace, Robotics as a Service (RaaS) is rapidly expanding alongside it, growing from less than 5,000 units installed in 2016 to a forecasted 1.3 million in 2026; the market is expected to be worth $34 billion by then. Here’s a little more about what RaaS was, is, and what its future holds.
Customized robotics used to be for (very) big companies only.
The upfront capital required to design a line of robots and software that meets a company’s unique needs, then manufacture those robots, and then maintain, repair and replace them, used to be something that only a handful of the world’s largest companies could afford. It would also take years before they’d see a return on their massive investment.
So how did we get to a place where robotics could be added to the long list of Anything-as-a-Service offerings?
- Lower hardware production costs (due to an increasingly globalized market)
- Readily available and affordable computing and cloud infrastructure
These two factors have affected what’s called the Automation Tipping Point (ATP), which is the point where it is more cost-effective for a robot to do a certain task than it is for a human to do it. And an increasing number of businesses will reach that point very soon.
What’s happening in the RaaS world right now
The global robot market was previously cornered by four industrial robot manufacturers (ABB, Kuka, Fanuc, and Yaskawa, also known as the “Big 4”). But that’s changing. Today there are a growing number of RaaS startups that can offer companies scaleable business options that have fixed costs and can be updated as needed. And since most companies are already familiar with other as-a-Service models, they’re more open to exploring RaaS offerings.
Previous custom robotics was mostly focused on large-scale plant and assembly line manufacturing, but RaaS is expanding their subscription offerings into several other fields:
- Security. The days of security guards patrolling buildings late at night may soon be over. Cobalt Robotics has developed intelligent patrol robots that are remotely controlled and monitored by people in a command center. The robots are designed to detect anomalies and can manage incidents or unexpected guests via a two-way touch screen.
- Factory Logistics. Robot coworkers (also known as “cobots”) are working side-by-side with warehouse workers to help them work smarter and quite literally do the heavy lifting. 6 River Systems has even nicknamed its cobot—it goes by “Chuck”—which uses the same sensors as autonomous vehicles and machine learning to help its human cohorts work more efficiently.
- Deliveries. Your delivery guy may soon be a four-wheeled delivery bot. (Seems less likely to flip over your pizza than a drone, right?) Starship has developed delivery bots designed to work with restaurants, shops and other businesses that need items delivered locally; the robots can be controlled by the businesses through an app. The company has already had one successful test run at George Mason University earlier this year.
Is RaaS right for your business?
While RaaS’s price point-of-entry makes it easier to access, these robots aren’t perfect—they still depend on machine learning and other evolving tech to do their jobs. Here are a few things to consider before you subscribe:
- Communication. Many of these robots are designed to interact with humans at some point during their work shift. How smooth are those interactions going?
- Cognition. How well are the robots understanding and properly reacting to the environment they’re navigating?
- Manipulation. Are the robots clumsy when they have to physically handle things, or do they demonstrate enough dexterity to get their jobs done?
- Upgradeability. Robotics is a rapidly-advancing field. Will your RaaS provider continue to equip you with the latest tech, or will you be stuck with last year’s machines?
- Software applications. Is your team comfortable building your own robotics applications using open source frameworks (such as the ones Amazon, Google and Microsoft offer), or will you be depending on your RaaS provider to develop and manage them?
Just like with any form of fast-changing tech, RaaS might not be a right-out-of-the-box fit for your business needs. But it’s worth thinking about how RaaS can not only help your company become more efficient, but also prepare you for a business landscape where robot labor will soon be the norm.