No bones about it, the global economy is in a state of disarray.
From a global energy crunch and sustainability concerns, to extended supply chain disruptions, recovery from a worldwide pandemic, and inflation and labor shortages – each is creating a new challenge for manufacturers and consumers alike.
At least when it comes to labor shortages, there seems be a solution within technology. Industry leaders have had to find new ways to do business. And autonomous robots have become an effective solution to the labor shortage problem.
Some of the biggest issues to previously using robotic solutions – high capital investments, speed of installation and programming, and productivity predictability – have seen considerable research and development in recent years.
As a result, it is creating a new niche market, known as Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS).
What is Raas?
RaaS is a service-oriented business model, which has the potential to achieve the goal of democratizing robotics automation by reducing the cost of entry for users and enabling advanced robotics technologies to be used by enterprises of all sizes. However, some businesses are beginning to recognize a subscription-like opportunity for robotic equipment. Just like in other ‘as-a-service’ models, manufacturers rent the use of the robotics, although the robot itself is owned by the vendor and as such provides maintenance, updates and 24/7 remote monitoring, as well. The service cloud acts as a clearing house to monitor the overall availability of robotic resources, and to schedule, distribute and instruct robots by their tasks and location, and the service provider is responsible for maintaining and ensuring the operational availability and uptime of the robot fleet.
Advantages to RaaS
Issues of labor and cost management are universal. With RaaS, companies of all sizes can control costs, achieve fast ROI, respond to growing demand and optimize their workforce.
Manufacturers will not need to staff multiple factory engineers, maintenance technicians or programmers. Users are able to configure the robot's functions using a simple interface, train it and apply it to a specific case, which greatly simplifies robotics solutions, which likely are already equipped with APIs and SDKs for common functions.
In addition, finding temporary workers is not easy. Manufacturers can rent robots during times of high demand, without investing in hardware. RaaS provides high scalability.
Another significant advantage of the RaaS model is that service providers are constantly updating and improving technology, so customers do not have to worry about obsolescence. Customers can keep up with advances in technology and the benefits it brings.
There has long been apprehension about including robotics and automation in some enterprises. This is especially true when considering retrofitting facilities originally designed for human laborers. Robots would require dedicated, human-free work zones. There is likely a need to expand the facility’s electrical infrastructure, and possibly its HVAC as well. And this is before the presumably large capital expense on the robotics themselves, which likely disrupts productivity during installation and training.
This creates several benefits for the manufacturer. They do not own or need to set up the machines, which reduces capital expenses for new equipment. Maintenance and machine monitoring is handled by the vendor as well. If a machine breaks, the vendor is required to swap it out for an equivalent, which minimizes production delays. Manufacturers only pay for effective robot uptime, only when robots are busy. Because the RaaS provider takes care of all design and maintenance, companies can deploy automation even if they lack in-house expertise.
The tech behind RaaS
There are several trends or innovations that have created the RaaS market.
First, the industrial internet of things (IIoT) has enabled a real-time network of sensing, reporting and analysis that has created insight into even the most mundane machinery metrics. But this networking has proved key to transforming many manufacturing, industrial and utility applications. Vendors and manufacturers can be responsive to issues and glean efficiencies from data analysis and application.
Cobots continue to be a meaningful presence. Thanks to presence sensing, force limiting and digital HMIs, humans and machines are able to work within the same zones. In fact, some robots are able to be retrained with hand-guidance, augmented reality or smart devices. This makes them more flexible when moving between activities. Humans and robots will join forces over the next few decades. Robots are tireless, efficient and reliable, while people still make faster and better decisions in non-standard situations.
Also, autonomous decentralized systems, combined with artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning, creates opportunities for decentralized learning. Robots adapted to work in RaaS have advanced sensing, networking and analysis. Vendors are able to gather the collective learnings of all robots in the field and apply them incrementally or to all applications. This can make customers’ production faster or more efficient, especially when coupled with an AI to make sense of all the data. Through decentralized learning, enhancing the learning effect by training a large number of robots in parallel, humans can achieve a high level of cooperation with robots in the near future.
Challenges ahead for RaaS
Of course, if this was a perfect solution, it’d be much more prevalent by now. There are some drawbacks. Manufacturers are left with no equity in their machines which they could possibly later resell or scrap, and lack flexibility to retask or deploy robots outside of the terms of their RaaS subscription. In addition, there is always concern about interoperability of robots from different manufacturers and industries and integrating robots into different factory or process engineering systems.
Manufacturers are also likely to pay as much, if not more, for an RaaS machine as if they owned it outright. Robots are also likely to come with tiers of service – so the most impressive features might live behind a paywall. In addition, there a relatively few vendors operating in this space today. Formic Technologies is notable, as is Fetch Robotics. Both organizations have small footprints, which limits their service territories and in turn limits the decentralized learning as there are relatively few units in the field to learn from.
RaaS vendors may encounter financing challenges to support operating expenses until RaaS turns into net positive income. As with many as-a-service models, several years' operating losses are likely before the business turns profitable. Some of these issues have been resolved in markets for micro mobility, cars and other equipment, as the model works on a similar principle. In the future, expect the emergence of major players in this market.
Going forward with RaaS
The top five RaaS segments are likely to be delivery, cleaning, manufacturing, warehouse and security robots. These are tedious occupations that are likely to encounter staffing issues.
The prospects for RaaS in industrial applications, which often outpace the non-industrial sector, are clear. RaaS allows small businesses to enjoy the benefits of automation, flexibility and scalability, which greatly improves competitiveness and spurs technological advancement. Without the widespread adoption of RaaS, these benefits would only be available to large enterprises that can afford the cost of ownership.
And it could help combat global labor shortages.
But the most interesting and promising field is RaaS for commercial and consumer applications. Imagine a near future in which service robotics will be available to nearly everyone, as smart phones are today.
No capital investment or long study for use; users can task the robot with a few swipes of an app. Your robot is running errands, cleaning around the house, mowing the lawn, accompanying you on a hike or maybe even teaching you to waltz.
About the author
Alex Reznichenko is a Ukrainian robotics engineer with more than 15 years of experience. He is founder of Botshare Solutions. He holds a masters in automation and robotics from Kharkiv National University of Radio Electronics and has studied at Technion – The Israeli Institute of Technology.