Robots set free: Innovation in robotics

June 16, 2015

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The future of robotics in manufacturing hinges on developments in robots’ cognition, manipulation, and interaction abilities.

For more than five decades robots have been used to automate dirty, dangerous, and dull tasks in manufacturing operations. They work in highly controlled and engineered spaces, in part to prevent harm to humans or damage to other operations. It’s because their behavior, while precise, is actually very basic. The spaces they operate in have to be modeled to the finest detail and their actions have to be programmed to an equally fine level of detail, removing all possibilities of unanticipated variation.

This is changing. Robots are becoming capable of working in changing, uncertain and uncontrolled environments. They are also starting to work along-side humans without being a danger to them. Robots are also becoming smaller and less expensive. The interest in robots from venture investors and businesses is also accelerating. It surely feels like the field of robotics is at an inflection point, destined to disrupt business models in all manner of industries. As robots are freed from their cages and applied to a much wider variety and diversity of tasks, the robot industry will expand quickly.

Challenges in expanding the robotics industry

The heightened interest is not without confusion. Although improving in some capabilities, robots are far shy of Hollywood depictions of their capability, causing many of us to have unrealistic expectations. The easiest of tasks such as opening a door or folding a piece of paper will baffle most robots in existence today. While holding considerable promise, their march out of the manufacturing cage and into the real world is far from certain and depends on overcoming a number of fundamental challenges.

What are the challenges to wider adoption of robotics? How will they be overcome and in what time frame? What are the emerging technologies that are creating the most impact and promise in the advance of robots? These are some questions that we are attempting to research and answer.

Innovations in robotics stem from many domains. They come from within robotic ecosystem, such as algorithms for manipulation, motion planning, and others. And they come from outside the core robotics ecosystem, such as research on deep learning, machine vision, 3-D sensors and others. Innovations are also stem from academic researchers, established vendors, labs of high tech companies, and increasingly from early stage startups.

Our early analysis is showing strong indicators that the future of robots is being shaped by emerging advancements in three key technical domains. These are:

  1. Cognition: The robot’s ability to perceive, understand, plan and navigate in the real world. Improved cognitive ability means robots can work in diverse, dynamic and complex environments.
  2. Manipulation: Precise control and dexterity with which the robot arm or arms to interact with its environment and the objects therein. Significant improvement in manipulation means robots can take on a greater diversity of tasks and therefore be useful in many more use cases.
  3. Interaction: The robot’s ability to collaborate with and work alongside humans. Improved interaction, including verbal communication, means robots can safely work with humans and augment their capability and capacity across a wide range of tasks, thereby opening up many new markets.

Independent and coordinated development across these domains holds a lot of promise in shaping the future of the robotic ecosystem. We plan to dive deeper in each of these domains and uncover the key underlying trends and how they would shape the future of robots and implications for enterprises.

The future of robotics

Technologies that make up the robotic ecosystem have been quite fragmented so far. Each vendor, research lab, innovator create their own, often proprietary, stack of hardware and software capabilities to build their solution. This too is changing and is further proof that we are approaching the inflection point for robots to become more main stream, i.e., to be liberated from cages on factory floors. Platforms are emerging across key areas of functionality in the form of operating systems, packaged libraries and cloud resident services. These platforms are promoting reuse of successful innovations, and lowering the barrier to future innovations. They also make the world of robotics accessible to innovators in other domains.

It is evident that innovations and changes are underway on many fronts. But, how quickly can the industry advance and address key challenges? In an upcoming Technology Forecast we will publish a special report and industry interviews designed to provide a realistic assessment of the pace at which the robotics technology and solutions will emerge.

What questions are on your mind when you think of robots? Share your thoughts in the comment section. For further reading on the future of robotics in manufacturing, see the Next Manufacturing series on robotics.


Bo Parker contributed to this article.

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Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffery

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email