2022 robotics predictions from industry experts

We already recapped the most popular, most important and most memorable stories of 2021. In fact, you can find all of The Robot Report‘s 2021 Year in Review coverage here.

With 2022 just underway, we asked some of the robotics industry’s leading minds to look to the future. Here’s what they’ll be keeping an eye on in 2022.

Juan Aparicio, VP of product, READY Robotics

More robots will continue to be deployed, with an increasing number in intralogistics and services. Asia will continue leading the way in installation. Bin picking will become mainstream, and successful deployments will continue to enable corner cases to be handled by humans.

The main bottlenecks will continue to be labor shortage and supply chain fragility. Manufacturers will need to apply ingenuity in their deployments, using less hardware and/or tapping into the reused market.

The consolidation in the industry will continue.

The price of sensors and other robot hardware will continue to go down, enabling new startups to provide robotic solutions in non-traditional industries such as construction, restaurants, etc.

As more robots are installed and more people interact with them, the need for ease-of-use and interoperability will increase. Plus, more companies will realize that robotics is not a one-off tool, but a central part of their digitalization journey.

It will be more important than ever for companies to invest in building internal acumen around automation, avoiding the allure of over-automating and starting with lower-risk solutions that are no black boxes for the engineers and technicians. Human reskilling and upskilling, together with deliberately choosing automation hardware and software that any worker can quickly become proficient with, will still be the key to success.

Sadly, a lot of reinventing the wheel and pilot purgatory will continue for companies entering this space. The need for a universal robot platform will continue to increase.

Adam Rodnitzky, COO, co-founder, Tangram Vision

I anticipate we’re going to be seeing even more venture dollars poured into robotics, autonomy, and related fields, along with brisk M&A activity. I think this has less to do with the labor shortage narrative, and more to do with a better understanding of fields where robotics can have a positive impact. In the same way that factory automation supplanted semi-skilled labor in multi-billion-dollar industries, so does fruit harvesting and truck driving. Conversely, certain models that supplant unskilled labor in speculative markets (sidewalk delivery robots, for instance), will start to face headwinds with fundraising.

I also predict we’ll see robotics startups emerge where nobody on the team is a roboticist in the classical sense. This will be due to the level of maturity and completeness of the tools available for creating a robotics company from scratch. You can now stitch together an off-the-shelf operating system (ROS2), add it to an off-the-shelf chassis (Clearpath), add your necessary sensors (RealSense, Velodyne, etc), and your developer libraries (MoveIt, Tangram Vision, RoboFlow), and you’re off to the races months to years sooner than you would have been years ago.

Deepu Talla, VP & GM of embedded and edge computing, NVIDIA

A million times more robots will be built in the virtual world relative to the physical world as developing and testing physical robots is expensive, slow, and unsafe before they are fully tuned for real world operation.

2022 will be a pivotal year for full scale use of simulation. Combining the latest AI technologies with RTX ray tracing graphics and accurate high-performance physics modeling, robotics development will be turbocharged.

Ken Goldberg, professor, industrial engineering and operations research; UC Berkeley; William S. Floyd Jr. distinguished chair in engineering, UC Berkeley; co-founder & chief scientist, Ambi Robotics

My hunch is 2022 will intensify the Roaring 2020s for Robots. Here are three trends poised to grow rapidly:

1. Tactile sensing: Although digital cameras have improved dramatically in the past decade, there has been remarkably little progress in tactile sensing since the 1980s. However, Meta (Facebook) just launched a major initiative to develop tactile sensors using internal optics that are accurate, reliable, fast, and inexpensive. The research community is excited to explore how these sensors could enhance robot manipulation.

2. Sim2Real Learning: Simulation can greatly accelerate reliable learning for robots if the simulator can accurately model complex factors such as contacts, impact, and friction. This has been elusive, but DeepMinds acquired the Mujoco simulator in November and is now expanding it to address problems in robot manipulation. A similar effort at NVIDIA suggests efficient, reliable simulators for manipulation may be on the horizon.

3. Division of labor between robots and humans: Automation of driving and package handling rely on a division of labor between robots and humans. Practitioners are realizing that it’s essential to carefully define the boundary conditions separating when robots work reliably and when they don’t; and to switch control accordingly. For example, Ambi Robotics is working with our automated package handling customers to identify package types that are difficult for robots so that human workers can process them upstream. I believe this trend will grow in sophistication as robots are adopted to meet the increasing demand for e-commerce.

Timothy Chung, program manager, Tactical Technology Office, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

I anticipate substantial growth in shared and widely available digital infrastructure for robotics – including field robotics datasets, field testing and operations expertise and tooling, and robust virtual environments – will close (much of) the gap between sim and real and continue to accelerate real-world deployment of robots in complex environments, similar to and beyond those faced in the DARPA SubT Challenge.

Kristian Hulgard, GM, OnRobot Americas Division

We see “package deal” applications trending for first-time users or small-time users of robotic automation. Instead of users having to piece together a robotic application from many different sources, wondering about compatibility, proven track records, and total cost of ownership, they increasingly look to application kits offering a plug-and-produce setup with all components validated to work together from Day 1.

This trend will only intensify in 2022 as we start seeing a higher focus on reducing deployment time of applications. Demand for automation is not going down, so how do we deploy the applications faster to meet this demand and help manufacturers address labor shortages and supply chain interruptions with many SMEs facing the “I need robots now” problem? We have to offer less customized automation and, to a much higher degree, look into developing off-the-shelf, standardized solutions.

We also need to look at how we help manufacturers tweak and optimize existing applications. Lean manufacturing and Industry 4.0 are not just buzzwords. Our customers want actionable insights into how well a robotic application is performing, they want live device diagnostics, alerts and preventive maintenance measures to keep costly robot cell downtime to a minimum.

Shermine Gotfredsen, global sales director, ROEQ

We foresee more autonomous mobile robot (AMR) players extending their capabilities to go beyond the manufacturing industry and further penetrate other industry sectors such as hospital, service, and e-commerce industries. We also predict more AMRs not restricted to indoor movements, featuring more rugged, outdoor maneuverability.

2022 will also bring a stronger focus on developing third-party ecosystems for AMRs to make deployments easy, quick, safe, reliable, and cost effective by enabling end users to choose mobile robotic equipment that is tested and vetted to work well with their AMR.

Brian Gerkey, co-founder & CEO, Open Robotics

With the growing maturation of the collaborative robotics world, there’s a logical inflection point with end users that I’m beginning to see more frequently. Industries such as healthcare, e-commerce, logistics, manufacturing, and others are all adopting a second or third wave of robots. And in most cases, those robot purchases are different from the ones already in place. Interoperability is the next big challenge in robotics. If a robot from Vendor A doesn’t communicate with a robot from Vendor B, then the end-user is going to have a problem on their hands.

That was the challenge we’ve been tackling at a healthcare facility in Singapore since 2018, and one we continue to address through our Open-RMF initiative. It’s not only vital that robots from different companies can communicate with each other, but this lingua robotica also needs to extend to other devices such as smoke alarms, elevators, and more.

Joe Campbell, senior manager, strategic marketing & applications development, Universal Robots

I foresee an expansion of the ease-of-use cobot paradigm beyond machine tending and into complex process applications such as welding, cutting and dispensing. Examples are OEMs such as Vectis Automation building cobot-based products that welders can set up and program for plasma cutting and MIG welding; and Robot27 that has launched a popular dispensing kit. We will continue to see new user-friendly application solutions for more advanced, heavy-duty cobot tasks appear in 2022.

I also predict an expansion of cloud-based tools to further simplify cobot programming. The pandemic made it abundantly clear that our users need access to their cobots whether they are able to come on site or not. And they need robot tool sets to help them understand how their application is running, gaining visibility into issues that enable them to proactively support production and machine uptime.

Sami Atiya, president, ABB Robotics & Discrete Automation

We are at the beginning of a decade of transformation. Businesses across the board need flexibility to respond to global mega-trends, from labor shortages and supply chain uncertainty, to rapidly changing consumer behavior with an explosion of online personalized orders, combined with a growing pressure to operate sustainably.

In 2022, we will see more demand for flexibility and more businesses embracing robotics. As AI improves the ability of robots to adapt, and complete more complex tasks, they will continue moving beyond traditional manufacturing, into logistics and warehouses, laboratories and even retail outlets. Think of self-learning cobots that work alongside people and autonomous mobile robots operating in dynamic environments. This decade will lead to a robot being as familiar in your workplace as a smartphone or a laptop – and I see 2022 bringing us closer to that reality.

Jason Bergstrom, principal and smart factory leader, Deloitte

I predict that in the next two years the demands of AMRs will move beyond transportation of materials to other purposes, such as flexible work platforms, data collection devices, and edge compute devices. We are already seeing a trend with manufacturers using AMRs to extend functionality by using robotic arms to pick, and even assemble items, for example. These extended uses of AMRs are altering the way manufacturers think about both materials and work functions in the factory to optimize the agility during the manufacturing process.

Additionally, AMRs can be leveraged as “agents” to provide real-time data related to the materials, environment and flow of a factory. As AMRs are backed by an onboard computer, they also can be leveraged to perform calculations on that data, providing and adjusting the real-time decisions.

Lastly, this increased use of AMRs will also drive the need for advancements in battery technologies, such as long-life batteries and even self-swapping systems to quickly change out batteries instead of recharging them.

Markus Schmidt, president, Swisslog Americas

Flexible and scalable robotic automation technology first gained a foothold in e-commerce fulfillment as those systems enabled e-tailers to adapt to fluctuating demand and rapid growth in ways the traditional automation simply couldn’t. Now, we are seeing continued expansion of those systems to new applications.

In applications that range from pallet handling to item picking, these solutions are giving warehouse operators the ability to scale throughput and inventory independently. They are fundamentally capable of driving higher performance with the same inventory or expanding inventory without requiring higher performance. This capability, combined with unprecedented redundancy, makes them an easy automation choice even for the hesitant.

They also offer the ability to adapt to the shape of the building where they are deployed, supporting the trend of increasing distribution capacity by upgrading older warehouses or repurposing unneeded or underutilized facilities such as closed retail outlets. While not new to the market, flexible robotic automation technologies have moved from an alternative to fixed and inflexible technologies to becoming the first choice for operators across virtually every industry.

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