This story was originally published as the cover story in the March edition of EE Times Taiwan
Broadly speaking, robots can refer to robotic arms, humanoid robots, special-purpose robots, robot vacuum cleaners, drones, and wearable robots. They have been giving human beings a helping hand to perform “special” tasks, such as gathering information in hazardous areas or reading information, accompanying and caring for the elderly, and increasing assembly speed in factories. Most robots can currently only follow preset instructions without evaluating said instructions.
More and more new and existing technologies are being integrated into robots, such as sensors, microcontrollers, cameras, various wired and wireless communication technologies, as well as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, machine vision, and augmentation reality (AR). Thanks to these technologies, robots are well underway to autonomously being able assist humans in performing more tasks.
The robotics market – a prosperous future
“Robot” has become a buzzword. According research from International Data Corporation (IDC), worldwide spending on robotics and related services will more than double by 2020, growing from $91.5 billion in 2016 to more than $188 billion in 2020. The forecast implies that the robotics market is sizzling.
The Chinese Robot Industry Report in 2017 shows that the global robot industry will drive new technology development and help revolutionize existing industries. In 2017, the global robotics market will reach US$23.2 billion, with a CAGR of 17% forecast for the 2017-2022 timeframe. Benefitting from the Made in China 2025 program, the Chinese robotics market was predicted to be worth US$6.28 billion in 2017, and it set to grow at a 28% CAGR from 2017 until 2022, making up for around one-third of the global market. In terms of types, the market for industrial robots reached US$4.22 billion, service robots US$1.32 billion, and special-purpose robots US$7.4 billion.
According to IDC’s analysis, technological advancements, increased number of use cases and market acceptance are major rapid growth contributors. This technological advancement enables robots to perform more types of tasks so that more enterprises make use of robots at work.
Service robots carry weight
Service and consumer robot markets are expected to see strong growth. According to Johnny Huang, analyst of mechanical and manufacturing systems in Industrial Economics & Knowledge Centre (IEK), Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), robots utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) technology, especially service robots, are projected to create a new business system in the future. According to IEK statistics, the global smart robot market is expected to grow to US$33.6 billion by 2021. The research organization sees continued growth of both industrial and service robotics markets. Shortage of manpower has been driving the market demand and sales of certain applications such as smart homes and healthcare at a fast pace in following years.
Jason Yang, Senior Product Marketing Manager, APAC at STMicroelectronics, indicates that service robots are not widely available right now. Service robots like Zenbo, Pepper and other robot caregivers as well as consumer robots such as robot vacuum cleaners and toy robots can be categorized in the high-end segment. He believes the market will grow significantly due to technological improvement and increasing social acceptance.
The high-end robots he mentioned can interact with humans. “The high-end robots are not just toys. They can interact with people and assist or accompany them through gesture-based or auditory user interface. Considerable growth of this market size and technological advances are expected,” explained Yang.
Industrial market has high growth potential
Service or consumer robots aside, industrial robots are gaining traction as well. Industry 4.0 focuses on importance of safer or highly automation in factories. Robotic arms, mobile robots and other industrial robots help factory operators perform dangerous tasks in production lines. Thanks to this, robots have gradually getting more and more attention.
IDC’s report says that the manufacturing industry makes up more than half of the robotics market value in 2016, of which discrete manufacturing accounted for 31% of the overall market, while flow manufacturing accounted for 28%. By 2020, the manufacturing industry will continue to be the largest segment of the robotics market. The related investment is forecast to amount to US$110 billion. In discrete manufacturing, robots are primarily utilized for assembly, welding and coating. In flow manufacturing, robots are generally used for mixing.
Morris Chen, Product Marketing Manager, GC & SA at STMicroelectronics, says that the industry has been moving toward streamlined manufacturing process by simplifying operating procedures, pursuing continuous operation without interruptions. If performed manually by human operators, fatigue or a lapse of concentration may commit costly errors, leading to lost time and production output.
With productivity in mind, replacing operators with robots or robotic arms is seen as a good approach, making industrial robots ubiquitous. John Wu, Field Marketing Team Leader at National Instruments (NI) Taiwan, indicates that the robotics market might become divided into consumer and industrial segments. While the industrial robotics market is still underdeveloped, it has great growth potential. In contrast to the consumer robotics market, industrial robotics is seen as having a plethora of uncontested market space where components and systems vendors can find business opportunities.
Apart from consumer and industrial robots, the market for special-purpose robots is expected to see big gains in the upcoming years. Special-application robots include rescue, transport robots and indoor drones, among others. These robots can reach areas rescuers cannot, or come with massive strength, enabling them to carry much heavier objects than humans. Military and rescue units in several countries have already introduced special-purpose robots for rescue use.
Key components and technology are key enablers
According to IDC, recent advances in technology is one of the driving forces behind the fast-growing robotic market. Evolving hardware and software technologies have brought robots to the next level with more and more cutting-edge features that meet market requirements better than previously. With market acceptance also increasing, the adoption rate of semiconductor devices is higher than ever.
Sensing the environment
Robots or robotic arms have to be equipped with various sensors, enabling them to sense their environment, making sure they are moving as intended as well as avoiding mishaps such as collisions. Chen explained that the sensors embedded in the consumer robots include robot vacuum cleaners, drones, guide robots are similar to those used in mobile phones. Most of them are accelerometers as well as gyroscopic and pressure sensors. Setting apart robots from smartphones is mainly software.
Vincent Lin, Technical Marketing Manager, GC & SA at STMicroelectronics, added that in order to avoid colliding with objects or people, consumer and industrial robots have to be equipped with time-of-flight (ToF) sensors for distance measurement and edge control.
In industrial applications, accelerometers and gyroscopes are used to ensure that robots are moving in the right direction. Furthermore, MEMS microphones are required to collect data on mechanical vibration, allowing for interpretation of the system’s operating status, allowing operators to detect early signs of wear and tear and avoiding issues with accuracy.
The penetration rate of magnetometers, on the other hand, is lower, since magnetometers are susceptible to interference and need stronger algorithms. Accelerometers and gyroscopes are for the most part enough to calculate relative orientation of an object. More importantly, industrial sensors need to be certified to industrial standards, and provide long-term guaranteed supply for a minimum of 10 years, as well as high accuracy and reliability.
Microcontrollers enable flexible movement
Robots can move and interact with motors – key components allowing them to do so are microcontrollers. “A robot needs to add in motors for walking or doing actions. So, the microcontroller has become an indispensable and required component,” said Yang.
A functional robot requires integrated sensors and communication technology. Microcontrollers can fuse sensors and communication protocols, making them an essential element in the robotic makeup. According to Yang, microcontrollers play an important role in balancing control, human-machine interfaces and interactivity of robots. Consequently, the burgeoning robot market has created an elevated demand for microcontrollers, while its use cases do not extend to other currently booming markets such as AI and cloud computing technologies.
Network technologies connect one another
Future robots, especially industrial ones, will heavily feature connectivity technology. Currently, few commercial robots support communication technologies. The combination of sensors and communication technologies such as LoRa, Sigfox, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and Bluetooth mesh networking is expected to drive more innovative applications than ever before, according to Chen. Additionally, it is projected to increase intelligence in industrial robots, boosting their efficiency.
Wu, for his part, emphasized that no matter how hardware components or technologies are enhanced, the integration of hardware and software technologies is key to create more business opportunities—by combining information technology and operational technology.
Chen also agrees that hardware needs to be paired with suitable software and algorithms in order to maximize benefits and to create efficient robots that meet application and market needs. Stunting growth is a limited talent pool of people proficient in both hardware and software design. As it stands, component suppliers prefer to work with third parties or software startups, so as not to bother with specialized training of a group of software professionals.
Another aspect to consider is the AR market. This at first glance unrelated field is one of the main benefactors of robotic growth, as pointed out by Wu. “Virtual reality integration,” transfer of knowledge between the seemingly vastly differing AR/VR and robotic fields can create new applications and business opportunities.
An example of this came from Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang at GTC Taiwan 2017. There, Huang demonstrated that AR technology allows designers in remote car manufacturing plants explain what components are being built into the car to the audience in Taiwan. With the help of AR, the audience got a closer look at parts of the car or design details, enabling remote, on-the-fly troubleshooting.
With AR technology, factory workers also know the status of robots at any given time. The technology can also be applied as an educational tool, teaching new employees about factory structure and how to operate its machinery. AR technology makes it easy to distribute knowledge of factory equipment and work processes. One example, explained by Wu, is that it’s impossible to stop and disassemble machines for factory workers to explain the internal structure and precautions, while learning with AR doesn’t require costly stops in production.
AI makes robots smarter
AI has recently been in the limelight due to the evolution of computing technology. Microsoft, Google and Amazon all have announced their development on AI-related technologies, with Microsoft and Amazon both setting up R&D centers in Taiwan. Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology also announced in July 2017 that it will launch the Semiconductor Moonshot Project (Semiconductor Manufacturing and Design for AI Edge) as well as invest NT$4 billion over four years in AI technology development and talent training.
AI is bound to be introduced in the robotics industry. Wu believes that the demand for AI in the industrial market will continue to increase in the future. AI technology will be applied when performing more demanding precise and/or difficult tasks. However, integrating AI into factory machines and equipment is a perilous task.
First of all, AI requires enormous processing power. It is also difficult to handle the AI technology, integrating sensors in industrial robots, control motors, and even teaching robotic appendages not only how to operate, but also how to learn new operating procedures, is a time-consuming endeavor.
Are AI-powered robots beneficial or harmful?
While AI is gaining traction, robots are certain to “evolve” when incorporating AI tech. Humanoid robots may gain intelligence as seen in science fiction. Currently, very few robots can learn and think on a primitive level, yet they’ve caused a stir. What kind of impact can we expect from a larger scale AI robot rollout? Will it be positive or negative? Will human vs. robot warfare à la Skynet of Terminator fame become our future?
Naturally, manufacturers intend to have AI robots collaborating and assisting humans in their tasks, rather than replacing them. The future looks set to feature AI robot caregivers in for example eldercare, to make up for a shortage in workforce, as well as replacing humans in dangerous military tasks such as mine sweeping, as well as industrial applications and in rescue missions.
With AI in its infancy, there is no fate but what we make. Once developers bring AI robots to life, industries and society will gain a better understanding of its benefits and advantages.