There has been a lot of investment by retailers in recent years to achieve a true omni-channel fulfillment strategy. Robots are enabling companies to improve the fulfillment process both in the warehouse and will soon be doing so in the retail store.

The Future of Service Robots

John Satagate | IDC

IDC is predicting some very strong growth in the service robotics segment, what do you think are the forces driving this growth?

The market for service robotics is experiencing a perfect storm of circumstances that are driving growth.  These circumstances include market readiness, technology maturity, delivered value, cost and availability, and the maturity of related technologies.  Companies are increasingly looking at robotics as a mechanism to improve productivity and efficiency of their operation, improve scalability and flexibility, and address labor challenges.  All of these things have come together to drive a tremendous amount of interest in robotic technology.  Additionally, we have seen a recent boom in new, venture funded, robotics companies with robots designed to perform specific tasks and do them very well.


Is there a market for personal robots in North America over the next few years? How about other countries?

Personal or consumer robots is another rapidly growing segment of robotics.  People have been infatuated with robots for a very long time.  What is different is that the availability of consumer based robots has increased making these devices more accessible.  One thing that consumer robots must do is perform some function, such as vacuuming or lawn mowing.  Taking on the mundane tasks of our day to day lives is freeing up people to focus on other things in their life.  In addition, we are seeing an increase in the availability of robots for things such as education and companionship.  The market in the US is a bit behind the market acceptance of robots in the home you would find in Asia, but this people are becoming more comfortable with consumer-focused robots.


In one of your predictions in the IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Robotics 2018 Predictions you make a prediction around modular robots, aren’t robots already quite a bit modular?

Yes indeed.  Even the more traditional industrial robotic arms are modular to a degree.  You can exchange different end effectors and change up the programing to allow the robots to do different things.  But, this prediction is more around modular mobile robots.  Mobile platforms are being used in warehouses and fulfilment centers to help reduce the movement and material handling that people must do within these facilities.  Today, however, the majority of these mobile platforms are purpose built, they do one thing and do it very well.  What we are predicting is the emergence of mobile platforms that can easily be equipped with a variety of tools to work on different processes, but do so on a common mobile platform with a common robot operating system.  We believe we will see the ability of these mobile platforms to be equipped with different bins, tow hitches, cabinets, RFID readers, and more.  By doing so organizations will be able to generate data around the disconnected business processes and use the common management platform to start to find ways in which the different processes interact that we cannot do with manual operations. 


What are some of the primary applications for modular robots?

Modular robots would be used, as they are today, to move materials throughout a facility.  But, modularity will allow the same platform to conduct inventory cycles counting, actually pick products off shelves, and other such processes that require some material handling or movement. 


Robots in retail is an interesting area, you are predicting that by 2020 30% of the top 100 retailers will be using robots in the ship from store process, why do you think robots are a good fit for ship from store?

There are already robots that are built for in-store operation.  Many of these are used to autonomously navigate the store and digitally capture information about the on-shelf inventory and store layouts.  However, what we are suggesting is that the use of robots in the store will extend beyond data capture to actually enable stores to cost effectively handle ship from store fulfillment for their customers.  The process of fulfilling ship from store today involves a person walking through the store with a pick list, putting all of the products in a basket and when the full order is in the basket taking the order to be packed up and shipped.  This process is much more expensive to conduct when compared to shipping from a dedicated fulfillment center, in part due to the difference in cost between labor in the different types of facilities.  What will happen is that robots will be used in store to autonomously navigate to pick locations within the store.  The robot will then send a digital signal to store associates that it is in place and ready for a pick.  When an associate is in the area, they can pull the product off of the shelf, place in the robots bin, and send the robot on its way to the next pick location where the process will repeat until the order is completed.  This model will greatly enhance the current state capabilities of retail stores to conduct ship from store fulfillment.


What about security robots, didn’t a security robot make some news this past year after falling into a fountain?  How do security robots fit into the market for service robots?

Security robots are a use case unto itself.  These robots are equipped with autonomous navigation, vision systems, and a variety of sensors that allow it to capture information about its environment.  These robots are meant to augment human security by giving them a greater degree of coverage with less physical resource requirement.  Yes, a K5 by Knighscope did recently make the news with a couple of operational snafus.  However, this is very complex technology that is being deployed at times in very populated environments.  A certain degree of learning is to be expected.  This is a market, however, that we are forecasting to grow by over 300% globally over the coming years. 


There is a lot of hype around non-traditional robots these days, but there has been in the past as well.  What is different this time around that is making robotics a mainstream technology?

The big difference this time around is the combination of technology maturity and market readiness.  They hype in the past has been driven by an infatuation with robots.  Today, the technology is able to do so many different things that robots could not do in the past.  Additionally, there is an abundance of funding that is being invested into robotics and related technologies.  This funding is allowing companies that are making these robots to continue to invest in the capabilities of their robots.


Do you have a prediction for any new or disruptive applications for robotics in the next few years?

Service robotics in general is going to be quite disruptive.  I believe that one of the most disruptive will be the utilization of robots within the retail store however.  There has been a lot of investment by retailers in recent years to achieve a true omni-channel fulfillment strategy.  Robots are enabling companies to improve the fulfillment process both in the warehouse and will soon be doing so in the retail store.  This approach will both disrupt the current business process, but will also help retailers to get a better sense of the utilization and movement of inventory throughout their network.


About John Santagate
John Santagate is a Research Director at IDC responsible for the service robotics market.  Mr. Santagate’s core research coverage includes market trends and forecasts for service robotics, business process evolution through the use of service robots, and the integration of robotics into business processes and business IT architecture.  Mr. Santagate’s research looks across industries and seeks to deliver actionable intelligence to organizations around the deployment and use of robotics as well as related technology areas that are helping to enable wide spread adoption of robotic technology.  Read more of John’s research HERE.  


The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of RoboticsTomorrow

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