January 11, 2021

6 Questions with Mobile Robotics Expert Rian Whitton

Gavin Donley
Gavin Donley

Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Rian Whitton, a senior analyst at ABI Research, and one of the foremost experts on the global mobile robotics industry. Learn more about Rian.

1. What are your biggest takeaways from 2020 when it comes to robotics, specifically autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)? What surprised you?

Prior to the pandemic, the adoption of AMRs was accelerating rapidly, but the majority of activity was still focused on automated material handling in warehouses, with some growth in factory environments and cleaning operations.

As soon as the gravity of the situation hit in March, novel use-cases for AMRs proliferated as part of the general response to the virus. There was a real focus on cleaning and maintenance robotics, whether that was automated scrubbers or disinfection systems. Pilot projects for autonomous last mile delivery also proliferated. Ultimately, the virus highlighted some value robotics could provide in nascent markets like delivery and security, while being a stimulant for automation in cleaning and material handling.

ABI Research envisaged that there would be a drop in deployments for AMRs for 2020, followed by a solid rebound in 2021. We have found that while some deployments were negatively affected due to the coronavirus, interest grew markedly. The closer that robotics companies have been to use cases focused on e-commerce or cleaning, the better their short-term prospects have been. While there have been some redundancies and failings, I have been surprised at how few casualties there have been in the industry. Based on the funding rounds this year, confidence in the automation market proved remarkably resilient.

2. How much will the health crisis accelerate the adoption of AMRs in the next 3-5 years within retail? What is your latest forecast?

Retail obviously took a significant hit from the virus, and the already evident trend of the growing e-commerce share of retail has accelerated dramatically. Brick and mortar stores will remain a critical component of the economy, but to meet the demands of increasingly expectant customers requires productivity improvements.

The coronavirus also saw a major prioritization for companies to get metrics on cleanliness. This is additional value that AMR companies like Brain Corp can provide through analytics and business reports. For our forecasts, we envision that by 2025, of the 1.5 million mobile robots deployed worldwide, over 100,000 will be deployed in retail, including for cleaning, maintenance, social uses, material handling, and data collection.

3. What is the danger to businesses that ignore the robotics and automation trend?

There is a common assumption that robot deployments lead to job losses. What is increasingly being found is that companies that deploy more robots see higher productivity gains and so employ more people, while companies that fail to implement new technology lose market share and fall behind. On some level, larger companies are well placed to automate faster as it has historically been a very challenging technology to adopt.

Of course, the robotics industry is getting much better at servicing smaller enterprises through both more adaptable technology and through the proliferation of service models.

The danger of falling behind on automation can be best emphasized in manufacturing and in my own country of the United Kingdom. We lag the rest of Europe in deployments per 10,000 workers (or robot density). Yet despite this lag in automation, we have seen a much greater drop in manufacturing employment than countries like Germany over the last few decades. The same applies for companies. Inaction does not save jobs.

4. Given the growth in the manufacturing, development, and usage of cleaning AMRs, is it fair to say that commercial cleaning robots have become the new operational standard within retail and other key verticals?  

Absolutely, we have a burgeoning ecosystem of robotics developers, lots of partnerships with original equipment manufacturers like Tennant and Nilfisk, and sufficient buy-in from grocers and retailers like Kroger, Schnucks and Walmart. All the infrastructure is in place for automated commercial cleaning to be mainstreamed in retail.

We are not yet at the stage of consumer vacuums, where some 20% of all new sales are automated. Our latest figures for the sale of manual commercial equipment in the US points to over 1 million systems being sold in the US annually. About 800,000 of those are commercial vacuums with the remainder being the more expensive hard floor, extractor, blower, and sweeper systems. I think what Brain and other companies have shown is that this is a high growth market, in which the situation has accelerated greatly from even just 6 months ago. By 2030, we envisage over 800,000 autonomous commercial cleaning systems being sold worldwide across retail and real estate markets.

5. Looking into your crystal ball, what are your top three predictions for the AMR industry in 2021? Where do you see the biggest developments happening?

Diffusion of use cases — The major winners in the robotics industry for 2020 were those offering cleaning solutions and material handling for the supply chain. In 2021, the interest in automation will expand further and there will be a push to increase productivity in markets where efficiency improvements are much needed. I am particularly thinking about agriculture, industrial inspection, and construction.  

The gradual rollout of 5G to enable continuous operation, the success of current pilot projects, and better funding is very promising. I think this will translate into more ‘smart city’ robotics deployments that are not restricted to a retail store but might operate across an entire city district.

Industry giants enter the market — BMW’s foray into automated material handling through the founding of ‘Ideal Works’ is a big step for a large automotive manufacturer and a real vindication of the wider AMR industry. This is part of a broader trend of major manufacturers transitioning into pan-industrials who have a comprehensive technology ecosystem including additive manufacturing, cloud computing, and robotics. It is also a case of a major industrial giant not merely seeking to use robots for itself, but believing it can be a great business for prospective customers outside of their market.  

2021 will see other major companies begin to take robotics much more seriously. This means OEMs will increasingly seek to bring robotics talent in-house and compete fiercely with robotics companies that want to operate independently.

500 quadrupeds get sold? — Crises provide clarity, and whether it be the public or private response, things previously considered off the table have become possible. There are some more exotic robotic technologies that have not found their place in the market yet but should not be discounted. I think collaborative robots, mobile manipulators, bipeds, and quadrupeds are all being looked at as part of the next generation of flexible systems that will complement the current upturn in AGVs and AMRs. I think the Boston Dynamics sale to Hyundai was a positive development for the wider technology, and start-ups like Zoa Robotics and ANYBotics in the UK and Europe are working on their own solutions, I think it is conceivable we see up to 500 quadrupeds sold globally this year.  

6. Can you predict what the retail store of the future will look like in five years? Do you see a multi-robot environment?

It is always difficult to gauge a future case-study, given that autonomous robot technologies are developing at uneven paces across different domains. Autonomous scrubbers are being deployed quite rapidly and I think the sheer number of market entrants points very positively to this part of the puzzle. But as we saw with the news around Walmart severing their partnership with Bossa Nova, inventory checking and data collection is not as far advanced. But by 2030, I think we start to see stores that are increasingly automated, with AGVs and automated storage and retrieval systems operating in the back office serving online deliveries and collection orders, while autonomous scrubbers and automated inventory tracking systems working on the shop floor. I think you may even see smaller guided carts with lower payloads operate in and around aisles restocking shelves in some cases.

These different solutions will be sourced from unique vendors but will feed into common fleet management systems, either provided by a particular robotics vendor or a third-party. This software layer will in turn interact with the local management system and cloud service providers to provide actionable, timely, and discrete data that can actually solve problems related to waste reduction.

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