19 Dec 2019

5 Ways Robotics is Transforming Industries in 2020

Chris Pu

General Partner

Investments, Networking, New Technology or Careers?

In popular culture, robots are often portrayed as entities who will overpower humans and take over the world. Robots becoming sentient appears to have always threatened humans. Who knows until when humans can control them? How long will humans be able to control them? Will they take all the jobs? A 2017 survey even found that more than 70% of Americans fears robots taking over.  

Throughout history, new technology and task automation have intimidated humans. They fear these technologies will render some jobs obsolete — jobs that put food on their table. But with each technological advancement, humans were never replaced. Instead, new industries came about due to these breakthroughs, and humans gain the time for more complex roles. 

The depiction of robots as mankind’s archenemy has never manifested itself outside of the theatres. From the beginning, they have had one purpose for their existence: to supplement human capabilities.

Today, robots are stealing the spotlight in major industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, construction, and many more. They are now disrupting these industries in hopes of increasing efficiencies and economies-of-scale. 

 

What are robots?

By definition, a robot is a machine that aims to replicate a series of complex human functions in an automated fashion. These include drones, bot assistants, self-driving cars, humanoids, and the like. 

The term ‘robot’ was coined by Karel Capek to describe automata in fiction. It was derived from the Czech word robota which means servitude. 

 

The Evolution of Robots

The earliest sight of robotics dates back to the Egyptians in 1500 B.C. They developed a water clock to measure time. As the water exerts force by falling to the clock at a constant rate, it automatically strikes the hour bells.  

The 20th century saw technological discoveries in robotics unravelling. One of the most prominent inventions at the time was Nikola Tesla’s remote-controlled boat. He used this during WWI to send signals to boats to adjust its settings (rudder and propeller). This allowed the operator to have better control over the boat’s activity. 

Robotics rose to popularity in the 1940s to 1970s. In Japan, robots were welcomed as comic book characters — many of which are still famous today (Giant Robo, Astroboy, and Tetsujin). Unimate, the world’s first industrial robot took up the role of transporting die castings and welding these onto auto bodies. Robot arms also became popular, with Shakey being the first general-purpose robot to reason based on its actions, and the Stanford Arm paving the way for robotic surgical arms to be later used in the medical field such as Puma350 and CyberKnife. 

In the early 2000s, the robotics industry grew massively. During the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, small robots called PackBots dug through the rubble and debris to assess its structural integrity and search for victims. 

Fifteen years later, humans have gone from replicating human functions to working on more human-like robots. The humanoid robot known as Sophia became the first-ever robot to be granted Saudi Arabian citizenship. This raised questions never asked before: Does she have the same rights as other citizens? Will she be trialled for any crimes committed?

Suffice it to say, robots in the past two decades have earned their spot in being a human’s trusty and intelligent assistant. Now more than ever, they take part in the transformation of industries to deliver safer and more efficient work. 

 

Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution, refers to the role of robots in various industries with a view to keep the physical and digital world connected in seamless and automated systems. It is also the umbrella term for automation and data exchange in technologies such as smart factories, IoT, big data, smart sensors, cloud computing, and cyber-physical systems. 

This is where the technologies are at now. Despite still being in its early stages, businesses can leverage the many technological developments made over the years. Some industries have already begun leading the transformation. 

 

How is Robotics Transforming Industries? 

1. Construction: Bricklaying, Painting, and Surveying

In the past, the robotics industry found it challenging to automate construction tasks as these would need real-time adaptation and responses. The recent breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence have allowed robots to slowly enter the construction scene. 

HadrianX is a bricklaying robot whose technology “reacts to wind, vibration, and other environmental factors instantly.” This enables real-time responses to lay bricks in a precise manner, thereby increasing safety in the worksite. Painting drones have also entered the scene, utilising a pan-and-tilt mechanism (instead of a nozzle) to get paint on the tiniest details that the drone can’t do by itself. Lastly, aerial drones are being used to survey a worksite to gather various types of data. Skycatch recently partnered with DJI to create highly accurate 3D site maps and models of project sites. 

 

2. Manufacturing: Smart factories and Self-Driving Bots for Material Transport

Robots aren’t new to manufacturing and have come a long way from Unimate’s cast handling and spot welding. According to a recent PwC report, more than half (59%) of manufacturers are already using some form of robotics technology.

Today, robots in manufacturing are about full automation. Smart factories — a digitised and integrated system of machinery and equipment — are emerging left and right. At the same time, the improvements in IoT and wireless network technology are also paving the way for the automation of factories. OTTO motors created a self-driving robot to deliver materials around a manufacturing facility. It is meant to navigate as a person does; by maintaining a map of the factory in its memory and using visual reference points to know its position (just like how a robot vacuum works). It can move pallets, bins, and cages around. 

Apple manufacturing partner Foxconn in China plans to achieve 30% automation with tens of thousands of ‘Foxbots’ by 2020. This means that iPhones wouldn’t be made by humans anymore, but robots!

 

3. Healthcare: Surgical and Remote Robots 

The concept of having robots in healthcare isn’t new and has been around for 30 years. From arm lab robot assistants to highly complex surgical robots, they’ve come a long way in the medical field. 

Robots joining the US medical workforce tend to fall into two categories: 1) robots replacing a job that was previously handled by humans, and 2) telemedicine-based robots that connect clinicians and patients in innovative ways. 

Mako’s surgical knee replacement orthopedic robot was able to perform a CT-scan on a patient’s knee, 3D-print an accurate model of the joint, and assist with pre-surgery planning tailored to each patient. In South Australia, robots are being used as nurses’ aides. They deliver trolleys with medical supplies, food and linen to patients and staff. 

Microbots are now also able to aid in disease detection and treatment – this will allow a patient to swallow a tiny camera so physicians can take images of the digestive tract to detect tumours

 

4. Agriculture: Farm Hands 

Agricultural robots help out farmers with slow and repetitive tasks so the latter can focus on more complex production problem-solving. There are now various tasks that agricultural robots can undertake: harvesting, fruit picking, phenotyping, pruning, seeding, spraying, among others. 

DJI, the industry leader in the drone business, partnered with PrecisionHawk on providing smart agricultural solutions. Together, they provide farmers with real-time information about their crops, fields, and harvests through the converted and analysed aerial data. 

Energid’s citrus-picking robot can pick fruit every 2 to 3 seconds. It works through a grid mechanism which permits the built-in six-camera system to locate the fruits to be picked. This technology has brought the picking rate up to be approximately 50% and the thoroughness at 80%. 

 

PHOTO: Energrid’s Citrus-Picking Robot

 

5. Food: Robotic Kitchens 

In more exciting news, robots have begun disrupting the food industry. Moley has introduced the world’s first robotic and integrated kitchen. It includes a fully functional robot that cooks like an actual master chef — the system copied the cooking skills, movements, and nuances of master chef Tim Anderson. 

PHOTO: UBTECH

In China, UBTECH’s Cruzr acts as a grocery assistant in Yonghui Superstores, recommending wine pairings to shoppers.

 

More Robotics Trends to Watch Out For

  • Resources: Autonomous surface, ground, air, and underwater vehicles exploring for oil and gas on their own in 5 years
  • Manufacturing: Robots communicating their intent, and understanding process-specific simple natural language commands (to develop over 15 years)
  • Healthcare: Real-time 3D reconstruction of the inside of the joints during surgery and manipulation of these with instructions given by a surgeon 
  • Healthcare: Robots that clean up post-surgery in 5 years’ time and patients moved by robots from the bed to the wheelchair in 15 years
  • Infrastructure: Robots grasping more complex objects in 10 years

 

Australia VS. The World

The top five markets in the world for industrial robots are China, South Korea, Japan, Germany and the US. While the Republic of Korea has the highest robot density in the world at 631 robots per 10,000 employees, Australia only has 83 per 10,000. In comparison to the world, Australia’s robot density is above the global average of 74 per 10,000. 

There is a huge opportunity for Australia to bring the robotics market to $AU23 billion by 2025. This would involve investing in hi-tech firms, equipping Australians with Industry 4.0 skills, and supporting an entrepreneurial culture around Australia’s niche robotics capability. 

USA

China

  • Made in China 2025 is a government-sponsored plan to elevate China’s capabilities in manufacturing automation by integrating artificial intelligence and industrial robots into their factories. 

 

Robots to Improve Quality of Life

Robotics is at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution, and businesses should seek to explore the potential of this technology and those related to it. By 2025, industrial automation alone could increase employment rates and decrease workplace injuries due to the automation of tasks. 

Robots have been around to serve one specific reason — to act as a human’s extended hand. They were never meant to replace, but rather made to take on manual labour tasks so humans can engage in more complex roles. 

As of this writing, robots are doing exactly that — reducing costs, increasing efficiencies, and bringing in more data for research. No matter what pop culture depicts, the robotics industry is indubitably transforming business processes. There’s no robot uprising in sight, only significant growth in industries driven by companies such as OTTO, Energrid and, UBTECH — all smart, innovative, and futuristic. 


Author

Chris Pu

Chris joined Telstra Ventures in 2015 to lead its investments in China.

Chris brings more than 20 years of experience in direct investment and business development with on-the-ground investment practices in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India, Southeast Asia and the United States.

Most recently, Chris worked at Intel Capital Silicon Valley office and Beijing office, overseeing the investments in mobile internet, communications and enterprise software & services in China and Asia. Prior to that, he co-founded a venture fund based in Silicon Valley. Chris has a significant investment track record in Asia and the US including numerous major exits in acquisitions and IPOs. Earlier in his career, he managed business development activities in high-tech sector for Hewlett-Packard Asia Pacific.

Chris holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and a MS in Control Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.