Europe to regain position on the robotic market

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Despite giving the world the first commercially available robotic vacuum cleaner, and the first robotic lawn mower, most of the currently available household robots are not made by European, but by Asian or American companies. This was one of the main topic of European Robotics Forum in Sweeden earlier this year. As many of the European research and development teams and funding companies have found out the hard way, it is not enough to be the first on the market, or have the best product, the appliance has to be easy to understand, and has to be on the market at the right time to be commercially successful. Philips shared some insights to participants about its plan to supply products to the demand that doubles every year.

Besides the well known robotic household appliances, new service robots are being developed in different European institutes. The market for these robots is before an explosion, as the aging population needs a lot more attention that could possibly be given by humans. One of the most notable example in this field is Care-O-bot, designed by Fraunhofer IPA. The first version of this robot assistant was introduced in 1998, but now IPA works on the fourth generation model. Currently all parts of the robot are hand made, so it could cost up to €250,000 each, but moving production to more industrial manufacturing, IPA hopes to lower the costs to €10,000. To convert this R&D project to a commercially successful product, this cost reduction is inevitable.

Mistakes were made in the past, and they should not be repeated again.

Press release: 

Have we seen the last of, “Invented in Europe, Commercialised Elsewhere”?

SPEAKERS at the recent European Robotics Forum in Västerås, Sweden, addressed the well known gripe of, “invented in Europe, but commercialised elsewhere”. In particular, they examined past failures in detail to draw out the common themes and ensure that, with an exciting resurgence in European robotics just around the corner, businesses don’t fall into the same traps again.

Per Ljunggren, of Intelligent Machines, was the brains behind the Electrolux Trilobite, the first commercially available, robotic vacuum cleaner. He commented ruefully, “Being first on the market is no guarantee of success. We met all our product objectives except we didn’t become the market leader. With hindsight, we perhaps were too short termist. A parallel development to the Trilobite, the Husqvarna Automower, was beset with similar difficulties initially, but they didn’t give up. They redesigned the product, changed the marketing and reduced the price so that now it’s a moneyspinner.”

It seems that in the past, European inventors were actually too logical, often focussing on functionality above other, less tangible virtues, such as looks or fashion. Cyriacus Schultze, founder of The Robot Company and now MD of the Robotstore, pointed out that though wildly successful, Kitchenaids are not sleek, cheap or easy to use. Giving numerous other examples, he postulated that for new robotic inventions to be adopted, their function must be easily understood, they must be launched at the right time and they must be fully autonomous. Schultze’s new company, the Robotstore scouts the world for new products to nurture and bring to market.

An encouraging aspect that all the speakers agreed on was that the market in domestic robots is growing hugely. Barry Goeree of Philips said that global markets for domestic robots are doubling every year, with the highest demand from Asia. Goerre gave the conference a sneek preview of concepts Philips are developing to service this demand.

He warned: “We’ve got the R&D and we’ve got the big brands, but currently, the US and Asia are commercialising faster. With R&D for a new product costing anything between €10-50 million, this is a high risk game, so we need Government support if we are to successfully bridge the gap between R&D and consumer sales.”

The Forum’s own euRobotics Technology Transfer Award highlighted the wealth of robotic products that have already been developed in Europe. KUKA-DLR won with a multi-purpose, Lightweight Robot (LWR) developed to imitate a human arm’s dexterity, sensing and strength. But there were plenty of other contenders too, ranging from an interactive robotic birth simulator to an on-line fitting room for clothing retailers using robotic mannequins.

By common consent, the currently prohibitive cost of these bespoke, rather than mass market robots, is something that needs to be addressed if European ideas are to bring cash rather than just kudos. However, assuming this not insignificant obstacle can be overcome; there is a potentially vast market out there for service roboticists to address. The aging population is one such. Surprisingly, we already have a solution, German researchers at the IPA are currently working on the fourth generation of Care-O-bot, a robot specifically developed for elderly care and already able to fetch, carry and do some simple household chores. Martin Haegele of the IPA explained: “With every component hand-made, the robot currently costs up to €250,000, though we are aiming to eventually bring that down to €10,000 through industrial production”.

Wolfgang Heller of Infonaut predicted big changes as wealth in Asia increases to parity with Europe within the next two decades. Service robots in every house might still be some way off, but with European robotic research in the vanguard globally, there are countless niches to exploit, not just in industrial assembly, but in surgery, training, surveillance and distribution. However, for European nations to benefit from their inventions, they must learn the lessons of the past.

Supported by the European Commission through the euRobotics Co-ordination Action, the European Robotics Forum attracted delegates from industry and academia, as well as entrepreneurs and public investors to discuss the latest developments, research challenges and business opportunities for European robotics. The theme of the Forum was “Enabling innovation: from research to products”. The Swedish robotics organisation, Robotdalen, hosted the event.

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