Roberto Conti tells us about the robotics market new trends and next challenges. He is a Research and Development Engineer at IUVO, a startup that emerged from the italian Scuola superiore Sant’Anna, and he is also the coordinator of the INBOTS’ work package dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship and nontechnical support to SMEs.

Where is the robotics market headed?

I don’t think there is one answer to this.  A simple approach would though be to say that where robotic solutions can do a better job than humans, there are good opportunities. This would e.g. be in replacing humans in monotonous work and this has already happened up to a point. In general, we would expect the market to grow towards solutions that make our life easier.  This can be expected in all sectors, industrial, consumer and healthcare but based on different criteria.

In the health care sector, there is foreseen a lack of trained personnel for certain tasks and there, a big opportunity for robotic solutions is seen, especially in tasks where manual labour is currently needed.  This does though not come at any cost, there has to be an economic incentive for the users to adopt the technology.

What new market opportunities have arisen during the project? which one has better prospects?

In general, INBOTS has led to increased awareness about the potential of robotic solutions.  It is not clear if new opportunities have been directly realised as part of the project, but all the field has received attention and thus been pushed forward.  This is important as potential users now have better information on what to expect and where to look for the solutions.  It seems obvious that the prospects are better in fields that are not heavily regulated and can thus pick up new solutions relatively fast.  This would suggest that the consumer section would be the first to react, followed by industrial and healthcare, which are more regulated. Additionally, the regulatory environment may still be a bit underdeveloped for accepting such technology.

What changes does the market need to make the most of robotic technology?

To make the most out of the robotic technology, it is important to create an environment that is flexible enough to accept such solutions.  This includes legal and regulatory environment and also infrastructure in general.  If we think about the aims of using such technology, it is to improve in some way, increase efficiency, decrease manual work etc., but in the end, it needs to have some economic impact as well.

On the legal and regulatory side, the most important thing is to have clear messages.  A developer needs to be able to understand what the legislation is requesting and have some flexibility in showing compliance. 

Regarding the infrastructure, this is a question of usability of the technology as well. Can the devices access spaces as needed, can the operator manage on his/her own or is there any operator?  This is clearly different between sectors and the margin for error is also very different, you can forgive a vacuum cleaning robot to miss a spot, but you would expect a rehabilitation robot to do the intended exercises correctly every time.

“in the healthcare sector, usability and price will be considered among the highest barriers”

Having said this, the main market barriers may be different between sectors but in the healthcare sector, usability and price will be considered among the highest barriers. Included in the usability are issues like, complex and sometimes bulky structure, donning/doffing, how to get out of difficult situations (e.g. falling when wearing an exoskeleton), etc.

What company did you know during the project that you found interesting?

The interesting part here is the diversity and number of small enterprises that are trying to grow in the robotic field.  Approaching these companies is not always easy as some are very protective of what they are working on, especially when the person asking comes from a large enterprise.  You need to earn their trust before really getting to know them.  This makes it difficult to assess values and how realistic certain developments are to solve the problems they claim to be solving. But all these small players are interesting because of the innovation that they are doing.

Have any problem arisen during the project and how have you overcome them?

Finding reliable economical information for analyzing the status of the Interactive Robotics market has been very challenging, especially for micro-companies or new SMEs. To this aim, within our periodic meetings, we agreed on adopting a desk research methodology[1] for gathering information from different sources, such as integrating some specific databases for R&D projects  (e.g. CORDIS database for EU projects) as well as for patents.

It is important to say that the core of the proposed methodology relied on not only on the adopted desk research methodology but also on the background and the market knowledge of some INBOTS partners, that has been strengthen thanks to our heterogeneous and multidisciplinary consortium.     

COVID-19, How has it affected?

Being most of the work based on online desk researches, COVID-19 outbreak did not significantly affect the planned activities; indeed, INBOTS partners continued their tasks in smart-working and the final white paper of WP1 will be released with only three months of delay (April 2021).

Nevertheless due to COVID-19 outbreak, one of the pillars of the whole INBOTS project has been strongly influenced: all the dissemination and communication activities such as  conferences, talks and fairs have been suspended or postponed. In our WP, we tried to manage this situation by organizing a virtual special session on WP1 topics in the ICNR/WEROB 2020 conferences, held on October, 16th.        

How do you assess the management of the project?

Managing a Work-Package with more than 10 partners has been an exciting challenge especially because most of them have a completely different background with respect to mine. Therefore, I would like to thank every partner of the WP to have successfully contributed to the activities that are paving the way to our final deliverable (i.e. the white paper) about entrepreneurship challenges in the Interactive Robotics field. 

[1] Desk research: a type of market research that involves collecting and examining information that already exists and is easy to get, such as company records, published government reports, and information in newspapers, magazines, and on the internet. Source: Cambridge Dictionary

Where robotic solutions can do a better job than humans, there are good opportunities.