In the past few years industrial processes have monopolised practically all robotic developments and applications. However, the current tendency is marked by new robotics which will have a great impact in various spheres – from the industrial to services and including entertainment and care assistance for persons, amongst other applications.
This was the main topic analysed at the ‘Robot Business Opportunities’ (RBO) event, held the 24 and 25 January 2008 at Fatronik-Tecnalia Research Centre. This centre, located in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, organised this event, within its strategy of constantly seeking new business opportunities for the enterprise sector, an event to which a selected number, in a position to form part of the new businesses that will be generated around robotics, were invited.
For the first time in Spain, Fatronik-Tecnalia has brought together the most prestigious experts in robotics worldwide, such as Tatsuo Arai from the University of Osaka, Herman Bruyninckx, co-ordinator of the European Excellence Network for Robotics Research, François Pierrot from the French CNRS or Todd Simonds from the North American company CTC and close collaborator with the North American Carnegie Mellon University, amongst others.
The new robotics
Conventional industrial robotics is a relatively mature market today. There are about 1.2 million industrial robots, in a market that has been going for more than four decades.
However, the industrial robots market is not growing. It dropped by 11% in 2006 and it is estimated that it will not recover for 2007. In reality, industrial robots are being displaced by non-conventional robotics which has three features:
Firstly, the ability of non-conventional robotics to co-exist with persons, services applications and advanced industrial applications in which robots work in direct cooperation with people, or share the same working environment with them. Secondly, its capacity to move around non-structured environments and, thirdly, its low cost.
When its lines of production are in full swing, robotics can reach new markets: robots can help us in cleaning chores, can transport loads within a workshop, can undertake monitoring tasks and can help us to overcome human physical difficulties or limitations. That is, its applications are very varied and numerous and undoubtedly are set to generate great opportunities in many sectors, both industrial and services.
We are beginning to see the first successful applications of robotics outside production lines. For example, the iRobot enterprise has sold more than 2.5 million units of its domestic vacuum cleaner robot while robot toys like Robosapien from WowWee have triumphed with over 2 million sales. Just two examples which, together, come to more than the total number of industrial robots in the world, which indicates that robotics is no longer restricted to the world of the industrial production line.
However, these examples are little more than the tip of the iceberg of an emerging market. According to all indicators, the new Robotics Society is to arrive this decade. Robots will be put on the market at an attainable price with applications in monitoring, construction, refuse and other collection, education, entertainment, personal assistance and much more.
New business opportunity
Given this future, the business world cannot stay still and get left behind. Today Spain is the fourth country in Europe and seventh worldwide with the greatest number of robots installed. Nevertheless, according to the Spanish Robotics Network (HispaRob), in which Fatronik-Tecnalia participates, although Spanish industry is one of the most robotised, it has high indiustrial-technological dependence (most robots installed are in the automobile industry and concentrated in the hands of a small number of multinational companies who have a closed technology and therefore make the incorporation of national technological business to a large extent difficult).
According to the article, “A robot in every home”, by Bill Gates in Scientific American (January-2007), the services robotics market will increase massively over the next few years. In the article Bill Gates argues that there are similarities, between the computers market in the 80s (few had access to it, it was reserved for those with great technical knowledge, it was expensive, and so on) and today’s services robotics market.
Fatronik-Tecnalia has undertaken an important commitment to this new, non-conventional robotics given that, although it is expected that this market will undergo a significant boom, the Gipuzkoa-based technological centre believes it to be fundamental that this field be invested, researched and developed as soon as possible in order to be in a position to take advantage of what it offers. .
Moreover, the new robotics is not only an opportunity for the manufacturers of the robots themselves but also for end users given that, for the first, it will enable the enhancing of their processes and, for the latter, their performances. It is a great opportunity for our industry given that, in order to develop these robotics, it is necessary to have the technological capacity such as our industrial environment has.
Robotics in Fatronik-Tecnalia
One of the work areas at Fatronik-Tecnalia is that of intelligent robotics. This overall area has two sides to it:
Firstly, the industrial, with examples in manufacture, assembly, handling, inspection, analysis, union, cleaning, etc. and applications in various industrial sectors and, on the other hand, services, in which solutions are developed for their use by persons at a local level, in entertainment and personal assistance, amongst others.
Examples of developed products at Fatronik-Tecnalia in this new robotics range from autonomous robotised modules aimed at carrying out a concrete task to high-speed handling robots for automating production lines or mobile platforms that work in direct cooperation with persons, or share the same working environment with them.
To this end, Fatronik-Tecnalia has a highly relevant participation in a number of forums at both national (Hisparob) and international level (being a member of EURON, the network of excellency that aims at the coordination and promotion of research into robotics in Europe, is also a member of EUROP, (the European Robotics Platform) and has signed a number of joint working agreements with the major universities and research centres in the field of robotics, such as the Montpellier laboratory of informatics, robotics and microelectronics and with the Carnegie-Mellon University (USA).
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