As we turn the calendar over and look to the year ahead, there are a couple of things that I predict will influence where the autonomous mobile robotics market goes this year.
First of all, the biggest, worldwide macro economic trend currently is the pandemic.
At this point, it's difficult to predict when the pandemic will peak and when economic recovery will begin in earnest. Most likely, economic recovery will happen regionally in different phases.
Second, a well documented side effect of the pandemic has been the surge in online shopping, e-commerce and both curbside pick-up and home delivery of everything from restaurant food to groceries to everyday staples.
While many consumers can't wait for the return to in-store shopping, I think that there is a large segment of the population that is going to continue to leverage e-commerce more than ever before. I don't think that we're turning the clock back on e-commerce levels.
The impact of the e-commerce surge has been documented. The result has been an increase in deployment of warehouse and material handling automation as companies struggle to pivot and keep up with fulfillment demands.
Here are my FIVE predictions for the autonomous mobile robot (AMR) market in 2021.
PREDICTION 1: E-commerce growth and economic recovery will be the leading meta-trend in 2021.
E-commerce will continue to grow in 2021 - this is obvious both from 2020 consumer spending data and from the pent up consumer demand that will unleash in the second half of 2021 - once economies begin to recover.
The next market opportunity that is likely to emerge is the maturation of last mile logistics and the growth of micro fulfillment centers.
Warehouse automation, by my analysis, is now THE most mature of AMR-based applications. This is the result of the fact that warehouse managers around the world continue to struggle with labor, staffing and retention issues. Automation provides managers with the opportunity to help smooth fulfillment workflow and improve throughput.
The concepts of "buy online, pick-up in-store" and curb-side fulfillment became realities in 2020, after floundering to take hold for the prior two years. But now, especially in grocery, the pandemic has given consumers the incentive to shop for groceries online - and while many shoppers will go back to in-person / in-store shopping, a significant percentage of consumers are hooked on this option.
Lastly, let's look at logistics:
We've successfully automated every step of fulfillment workflow with the exception of last-mile logistics.
In the US, the FAA just announced changes to drone regulations, and opened the door for commercial drone delivery directly to consumers. This is going to be an interesting year for the evolution and growth of both autonomous drones and autonomous delivery vehicles.
There are a variety of innovative companies and solutions coming to market to help with last-mile delivery. BUT - there's still a ton of work to do to get to a fully autonomous and reliable last mile logistics automation solution.
This is one market where we're likely to see investment and innovation over the next two years.
PREDICTION 2: There is going to be a shake down in the disinfection autonomy market this year.
The emergence of automated disinfection solutions was one of the biggest news stories of 2020 on The Mobile Robot Guide.
We tracked the emergence and growth of this market all year. We even compiled and produced the first, and only, BUYERS GUIDE for Disinfection Solutions in 2020.
The market for disinfection solutions likely peaked in late 2020 and it's now over crowded with solutions. As a result, I would encourage you to pick your solution provider carefully if you plan to invest in this technology.
There are many, solid autonomous solutions on the market. The majority of solutions come from strong, viable solution providers. But you want to make sure that you're buying from a vendor who is going to be around for the long haul.
I predict that at least 25% of solutions in this market are going to fail to survive in the long term. I predict that there will also be some consolidation in this market.
Finally, there are several, large, vendors who are entering this market late, including a couple of announcements that will be made next week at CES 2021. (We'll cover all of these announcements)
The other option of course is to buy disinfection services with a robots-as-a-service contract. This ensures that you only pay for what you use and if your solution provider goes bankrupt, you're not left with an obsolete investment. You may need to switch providers, but that won't be difficult.
Regardless, the science of using UV light to disinfect a facility is well proven now.
Automating the disinfection process may not make economic sense in some regions, like India, where you can more affordably use manual labor to perform the operation. But overall, the pandemic has given us this new technology as a permanent capability in the toolbox of facilities management.
2020 was a rough year for travel and hospitality. It's likely that disinfection and facility cleaning processes may be a requirement for returning travelers to be comfortable staying in any given facility. When travelers have a choice, they will select accommodations that met their expectations for clean, and safe surroundings.
Travelers will expect that hotels and transportation establish and follow best practices for disinfection of facilities between travelers. They are likely to want to witness this process in action, and having an autonomous robot performing this operation in real time may be that proof for hotel guests.
PREDICTION 3: Agriculture automation is going to be the big story of 2021.
Farmers have always been early adopters of new technology.
The agriculture technology (AGTECH) market is always looking for ways to improve productivity while simultaneously reducing costs and producing food more sustainably.
Artificial intelligence, real-time data analysis and production automation are the three pillars for the coming wave of AGTECH innovation.
A big trend in AGTECH is "plant-level" management. This includes managing watering, feeding and pest control down to the level of each individual plant. This would be impossible in a commercial setting without automation and fast data processing.
We're going to see several big announcements at CES next week related to AGTECH. Around the world, AGTECH is attracting venture funding.
At the Mobile Robot Guide, we are now covering this market segment and you can expect to see news and updates related to AGTECH automation as it happens throughout the year.
We've already added more than 50 individual solutions to our database, and we're planning to produce an AGTECH Buyers Guide later this year.
The best part about AGTECH innovation is that everyone benefits.
PREDICTION 4: Lab automation will get a boost in 2021.
Our fourth prediction for 2021 is related to the impact that the pandemic has had on laboratory automation.
We now have COVID-19 tests that can turn around results in a matter of hours. Laboratories and all of the various equipment and tools that they employ have evolved at lightening speed in 2020. Existing pharmaceutical companies and medical equipment providers have been pouring millions of dollars into the race to find a vaccine and to deliver the tools and equipment to support front-line health workers in the battle against COVID-19.
Laboratory automation was already a mature market when 2020 started, but the volume of specimen processing has pushed the medical support system to its breaking point. From that stressful situation comes new innovation.
Material handling has a role to play in the workflow and handling of test material. This is both during research as well as production. When labs can quickly change over processes and dynamically move things throughout a facility, it makes everything more efficient.
The net result of this, I believe, is that we're going to see market growth for AMRs in the lab automation market throughout 2021 and beyond.
PREDICTION 5: Mobile robot software will attract investment in 2021.
My final prediction for 2021 comes back to software.
An autonomous mobile robot is made up of a number of components, including motors, batteries, sensors, compute and of course: software.
With a few exceptions, the bill of materials for a typical AMR device costs somewhere between: $5K and $20K (USD). Component costs will continue to go down as core items like LiDAR sensors find high volume applications in other, adjacent markets.
The AMR market is essentially on a path similar to personal computers in the 1990's, where the computing power curve continued to rise while component costs continued to decrease. Once computer platforms became generic, the innovation and investment moved to the software and applications.
Going into 2021, here are a couple of factors that will influence software innovation in the coming year:
- New AMR safety protocols will emerge with the adoption of ANSI/RIA 15.08 in 2021. This will influence the creation of new robot operational algorithms and as a result, require software updates to worldwide fleets of AMRs. This will likely happen in the second half of 2021, and spill over into 2022.
- AMR vendors will continue to differentiate primarily on their solution capabilities, rather than simply the technical specs of their hardware platforms. This means that beyond the robustness of the hardware, a solution's software capabilities will remain a key selling factor.
- The functional areas that rely on software include:
- Localization & navigation
- Integration of machine learning and AI-based algorithms
- Fleet management
- Task queuing
- Remote operation
- Continuous delivery and integration along with the evolution of DEVOP's for physical devices
The bottom line is that software will remain one primary investment area for robot companies in 2021. The proof of this trend is obvious: go look at the career page (or open jobs) of any vendor that you're considering as a partner and you'll see that the majority of open engineering positions are software related, rather than hardware.
NOTE: None of these predictions should be construed as investment advice, and they are purely the opinions of the author.