Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Industrial (Robotics) Revolution: Dawn of the Cobots

Robotics still struggles to get
rid of ancient stereotypes ...
The series of Cipher Snapshots which we have featured on this weblog has attracted a considerable quantity of favourable attention [a list of blogposts involving the fruits of using the Cipher IP analytics tool over the past year can be found here].  Today we bring you yet another Cipher-driven post, which will be something of a revelation for anyone who is not yet familiar with the "cobot" (this neologism combines the words "collaborative" and "robot").

Industrial (Robotics) Revolution - Dawn of the Cobots

  • Traditional industrial robotics are now being challenged by low-cost, easy-to-deploy cobots
  • Incumbents are actively patenting and acquiring companies in the cobot space
  • Pure play cobot companies are rapidly growing their portfolios
  • Incumbents have a broad geographic coverage while the cobot entrants’ are typically narrow
Robots taking over the world is arguably an unstoppable trend. Global spending on robotics has grown by roughly 80% between 2010 and 2015 to $26.9 bn and is expected to more than double in the next 10 years (figure 1, below). A more nuanced view of the robotics industry uncovers the advent of a shift in the market – the emergence of the cobot.
Traditionally robots’ main industrial applications call for extraordinary precision. These robots need complex programming, are large and most of all expensive. The new generation of cobots manufactured by the likes of Rethink Robotics, Universal Robots (acquired in 2015 by Teradyne) and Gomtec (acquired in 2015 by ABB) contrast these characteristics by being low-cost, easy-to-deploy, simple-to-program robots that work side by side with production workers.

This emergence of cobots is mainly driven by advances in technologies such as artificial intelligence and sensor technologies coupled with increases in computing power. The results are robots that will revolutionise production. Another example of this is researchers teaching them to learn how to do tasks rather than them being programmed.
Figure 2 shows an overview of the industrial robotics patenting market. There is a clear divide in terms of patent portfolio size. The large incumbents are European (Kuka and ABB) or Japanese (Fanuc and Yaskawa) traditional robotics manufacturers. On the left hand with small patent portfolios, out of the 5 fastest growing companies 4 are cobot manufacturers with Amazon (who acquired Kiva Systems) being the exception.
While figure 2 showed that indeed the cobot manufacturers show high growth and momentum, the relevant comparison is to see if the traditional robotics manufacturers are showing interest in cobot related technologies. Figure 3 compares the growth of cobot and overall portfolios of the traditional robotics manufacturers. Two things can clearly be seen; cobot related patenting is relatively outperforming the overall patenting of these companies and that cobot patenting has been going on for a number of years.
The fact that patenting has been going on for many years allows us to plot the age profile of cobot patents comparing the leading incumbents. Figure 4 shows that ABB in comparison has the oldest portfolio. Kuka and Fanuc display medium aged portfolios with more evenly spread out patent families. Yaskawa has a fairly young portfolio with steep concentrations around the 3-year mark. All of the major robotics companies seem to hold a significant number of cobot related patents.
Figure 5 shows the geographical coverage of the companies’ cobot patent portfolios. Overall, large robotics manufacturers have a wider geographical coverage than cobot manufacturers. Yaskawa stands out as having the narrowest coverage among the major robotics firms. Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots have 100% coverage in the US with some coverage in Europe while Gomtec exhibits full European coverage.

There seems to be a change of tides in the industrial robotics industry. The divide between the incumbents and entrants is enormous on various levels: size of total portfolio, age profile, geographical coverage. The incumbents do also have reasonably sized cobot patent portfolios and appear to be growing.

The new players are too small to be a threat to the market leaders within their main business of industrial robots, but can well compete in the cobot space. As they create innovative products with lower price tags, enabling especially small companies to use robotics in their production, they can find their niche and disruptors such as Rethink Robotics are revolutionizing the market. We will see if they have the ability to turn the tables on the market leaders despite their small portfolios.

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