We need horizontal migration for robotics

Despite the tremendous potential for robotics to transform people’s lives, robotics is not nearly as widespread as information technology.   Traditionally this has been ascribed to the high capital costs of starting a robotics company, but this explanation does not bear scrutiny[i].  More realistic explanations for the lack of proliferation of robotics are that management in most robotics companies cannot effectively match customer development and product development cycles, and robotic solutions are not easily ported from one industry to another.

The lack of synchronization between product and customer development leads to a much slower and more expensive development cycle than in software based businesses. This is not an inherent problem of robotics, but a product of the management practices employed in robotics versus software businesses.  Better management is already leading to falling iteration cycle times.  Many of the leading robotics firms on the West Coast have cycle times that are within a factor of 2 or 3 of software best practice.

The more fundamental problem in robotics is that robotic solutions are not easily ported from one industry to another.  Solutions tend not to be universal but rather quite tailored to specific industries.  As a result, successful robotics firms tend to think of themselves as serving specific industries and being participants in that industry rather than having a core technological competence.

Take the example of Automated Healthcare, one of the first substantial out-of-factory robotics acquisitions.  In the 1990s, it developed a solution for automating pharmacy operations at hospitals to reduce labor and more importantly theft and errors in the pharmacy.  Although, their solutions was loosely based on handling of computer tape media, they did not view themselves as a material handling and storage provider, they came to view themselves as providers of drug distribution solutions—while this is certainly a valid business direction—the acquisition by McKesson ensured that their great success in drug distribution would likely stay in that industry.  I’m not suggesting that McKesson took a technology that was ready to jump industries and didn’t take it across industries.  However, once a technology finds a home in a giant healthcare company it is going to developed to serve the interests of the parent company, not the interests of the robotics community at large.

Contrast this with solution providers for information technology.  Ten years prior to the start of Automated Healthcare, Oracle was being started as a relational database company.  Oracle did not stay fixed on any particular industrial niche, but rather became a database solutions provider to practically every industry that uses databases.  This portability allowed Oracle to grow to a thousand times the size of Automated Healthcare, even though material handling probably generates as much revenue as do relational databases.   The sad part is that the acquisition of Kiva Systems by Amazon indicates that this trend robotics material handling solutions being aligned to particular industries is likely to continue.

ReThink’s Baxter may point at a broadening of robotics to serve several sub-segments of manufacturing.  I hope that Baxter can also become the mail clerk in an office and serve lunch in the cafeteria.  Once we get to that point, our industry will really start to take off.  My suspicion is that there are enabling technologies and infrastructure that we haven’t developed yet to do this.  A truly universal dispatching system and some other key enabling technologies are likely to have to fall in place before this happens.  I hope to devote a future post to what those key enabling technologies and infrastructure pieces are.

About Robert Morris
A robotics businessman working to make the economy more human.

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