Business Results and Trends for 2010

January 26, 2010

By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, Robotic Industries Association

Where is business headed in 2010? We got some of the answers during the Robotics Industry Forum. Robotic material handling is in generally good shape, but of course choosing a specific industry is critical. Food looks like a growth opportunity for robots and don’t count out automotive (especially spot welding) but what else can we deduce?

If you read the Wall Street Journal, you might see some clues about recent market trends in the January 26, 2010, Marketplace section. Halliburton is said to have a 48% decline in fourth quarter earnings but sees a silver lining in a resurgent North American oil-field-services market. There are some RIA members who do work in this area for many reasons, and material removal like deburring could well become an opportunity for a few who know what they are doing. (We know the players – let us get you connected.)

Ericsson reports it is cutting 1,500 more jobs this year after a spectacular fourth quarter loss – 92%! It seems equipment sales were hit very hard but the services side is their silver lining. Philips Electronics found itself on the profit side of the balance sheet in the fourth quarter and General Electric was happy with better than expected results.

It looks like flat panel manufacturing could firm up – which of course happens mostly in Asia, but good demand for this sector can translate into a wider boon for the economy.

It might be a good idea to keep an eye on railroads as a growth sector. Federal spending on high-speed rail could benefit the robotics industry since robots are used for many fabrication applications there. A strengthening dollar might put a bit of a brake on exports which has a direct bearing on railroad activity, but lately food, grains and beverages have helped keep the wheels turning for companies like Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

It should be no surprise that a light at the end of the tunnel analogy was part of the Forum presentation by Chris Thornberg, Beacon Economics. Maybe the railroads will be a bigger part of the recovery process than is often considered – especially in the robotics industry. An oncoming train could actually be a good sign … the more goods we move the better it is for the economy.

For most of the country it is all about small business, and that sector has much to gain as it has fallen so hard from the effects of the Great Recession. Thornberg indicated credit is more available to small business than perhaps many believe, and there is no doubt that a loosening of credit would be good in general. (Isn’t that the idea behind bank bailouts?)

It is interesting that the WSJ thought it was notable to highlight success in the small business sector for select companies that got on the reality show bandwagon (Ace of Cakes, American Chopper). You don’t have to have your own TV show, though. Some contend that use of social networking tools is good for business as noted during the Forum by Jim Spellos, Meeting U.

RIA offers an integrated marketing approach to help members see the trends and use tools that help business. I don’t know of any organization that lets members publish so much for free, let alone provide special mentions on Twitter and blog sites to keep members and the Association relevant. Thanks for stopping by – let us know what we can do for you. (Comments welcome!)


Intel Labs May Help Bring Personal Robots to Your Home Soon

January 24, 2010

By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, Robotic Industries Association

If you missed the Robotics Industry Forum presentation by Dieter Fox of Intel Labs you missed what may have been the most humorous and provocative session of the week. He predicts that low-cost sensors will be commercially available in 2010 that will enable affordable robots that can operate in unstructured environments like your home and safely share space with humans. Much research has been done in this area, and robots are available now that can roam hospitals and other places while performing useful work, however cost remains a barrier to widespread consumer applications.

Watch for new RGB-D cameras, says Mr. Fox. They offer depth perception and will be less than $100 he says. Laser mapping is the current state-of-the-art for mobile robots and comes with a price tag in the $60,000 range. He referenced displays at the Consumer Electronics Show where 3D laser mapping was demonstrated as a new form of automotive telematics.

He emphasized that another key driver is an expected shift from mechanics to algorithms as a way to achieve autonomous robots. This, of course, is why Intel Labs is so interested and doing so much research on robotics.

All the hype about “there’s an app for that” certainly applies in the robotics field. Mr. Fox sees an opportunity for “natural human-robot interfaces” based on existing work such as Google SketchUp and 3D Warehouse.

Another way robots can work more independently is with the aid of electric sensors on grippers that provide feedback so a gripper can grasp and pick up random objects. In one case, a Barrett Arm equipped with such sensors picks up coffee cups and places them in kitchen cupboards that it opens and closes.

Eventually, he sees robots incorporated into gaming applications where children and adults play in concert with a robot.  No doubt that would open up profitable possibilities for Intel.

Mr. Fox’s session was a perfect wrap to a well attended (more than 250 people) Association event in Florida that combined technology talks from Automated Imaging Association, Motion Control Association and Robotic Industries Association. Insight about the economy, state-of-the-industry, trends and near-term developments all came to life within the context of this session.


Robot Drone Flies at CES

January 13, 2010

By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, Robotic Industries Association

Robot Helicopter at Consumer Electronics ShowA small “robotic” drone at the Consumer Electronics Show garnered attention by bloggers at the Detroit News. From their account it flies itself with nothing more than a “two colored tube” that sounds a bit like a homing device. Neat stuff!