Robotics and automation will result in many job losses around the world and could be particularly severe in China, the world’s largest manufacturing hub. Despite a shortage of workers in many Chinese factories today, extensive automation could one day result in massive job losses and unrest in China. To minimise this risk, China is pioneering the development and adoption of collaborative robots (Cobots) which work side-by-side with human workers rather than replacing them.
Since the world’s first commercial cobot was produced by Universal Robots in 2008, cobots have gained recognition from a variety of industries, and more than 50 enterprises worldwide have entered the sector. Although they presently account for around 5% of the industrial robotics market, which is dominated by a few large companies, the robotics industry is ripe for disruptive innovation by small new players. The market is growing rapidly. In 2018, a total of 10,500 cobots were sold worldwide, up 95.5% year/year. One of the key industrial sectors for cobots is the electronics industry and the assembly of small digital devices.
Conventional industrial robots are fenced-off from humans to prevent accidents. Unlike large industrial robots, however, cobots are sensitive to physical contact and operate at lower velocities to ensure workers can operate safely in close proximity to them. They immediately stop when someone touches them and slow down when people approach. Their flexibility and the relative ease of use compared to fully automated robotic systems, makes them an affordable and highly attractive alternative for small and medium size businesses (SMEs) looking to automate certain aspects of their production processes thus enabling SMEs to upgrade production with limited capital. In addition, they can be moved around the factory floor easily and refitted with grippers for new applications.
As their speed, accuracy and ability to carry heavy loads improve, cobots are increasingly being adopted by mainstream companies as well, a surprise for the big incumbent robotics companies such as ABB, Fanuc, Kuka and Yaskawa, which typically focus on industrial robots for large scale manufacturing in the automotive, electronics and food processing industries. Although these big companies have developed cobot product lines, they only have a very small market share in comparison to the new pure cobot players and are now playing catch-up.
Global vendors in cobot manufacturing include market leader Universal Robots (owned by Teradyne), Aubo Robotics, Automata, Doosan Robotics, Franka Emika, Precise Automation, Productive Robotics, Rethink Robotics and Techman Robot. Start-ups include: a16z, Empire Robotics, Fetch Robotics, Grabit, Osaro, Ready Robotics, Soft Robotics, Veo Robotics, Voodoo Manufacturing, etc.
Chinese cobot manufacturers include Aubo Robotics, Elephant Robotics, Han’s Robot, HIT Robot Group, Jaka Robot, Rokae and Siasum. Start-ups include: Elibot, Jaka and Yteam.
Historically, the robotics industry has been plagued by limitations in vision technologies, gripper dexterity issues as well as low ROI due to low labour costs in some industries such as agriculture. However, robotic companies are now tackling these challenges and the emergence of cobots is changing the economics of many industries, including agriculture, e-commerce, manufacturing and food services. For example:
- Machine vision – machine vision hardware such as Lidar has become more effective and less expensive which means that many vision-enabled cobots cam operate cage-free alongside humans
- Dexterity – start-ups are developing alternative end effectors based on soft robotics using flexible materials and fluid or air pressure instead of mechanics.
- One-shot learning – where cobots can recognise new objects without requiring vast quantities of training data. Future cobots may only need to watch a human once to learn a task or could be programmed using VR gesture control.
- Edge AI interfaces – AI voice interfaces are already commonplace in consumer technology interaction. However, factories have very different requirements, i.e. low latency and data security. Edge-based AI voice interfaces now enable cobots to be controlled by voice.
Counterpoint Research believes that cobots will play a pivotal role in factory disruption over the next few years, and as technology improves and demand increases, the cobot market is poised for a watershed moment. Improved automaton will have a powerful ripple effect and bring about major changes in many manufacturing industries. For example, companies will be less reliant on cheap labour and will be able to relocate.
As their speed, accuracy and ability to carry heavy loads improve, cobots they will increasingly be able to compete with traditional industrial robots and are perhaps are more likely to replace traditional robots rather than human workers.
China is well-placed to benefit from cobots. Although international robot manufacturers are well-entrenched and expected to maintain their market position, the cobot market is more of a level playing field, and coupled with China’s market leading position in AI, Chinese companies such as Aubo Robotics, Elephant Robotics and Han’s Robot are well-placed to dominate the domestic smart cobot market in the coming years.