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With robots, forklifts will never be the same again

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Robotic technology will transform the forklift industry, causing a transfer of value from human driving services towards spending on autonomous industrial material handling, writes DR KHASHA GHAFFARZADEH, Research Director, IDTechEx.

Robotic technology will also transfigure this industry, slowly but surely, enabling the rise of new types of autonomous mobile material handling units that will permeate into all aspects of our daily lives over the coming two decades.

The new IDTechEx Research report Mobile Robots and Drones in Material Handling and Logistics 2017-2037 provides a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of this transformation. Indeed, it provides technology and market assessments for all aspects of mobile robotics material handling and logistics. It shows, quantitatively, how some technologies will rise to transform industries whilst others will face becoming obsolete. Uniquely, this report takes a 20-year view of the future. This is essential because of the time scales on which these changes are likely to operate.

More specifically, this report provides the full picture, including technology assessment, detailed twenty-year market forecasts clearly explaining/justifying the different phases of market evolution, and company overviews/profiles/interviews. It covers AGVs/AGCs, autonomous mobile material handling carts/units and vehicles, mobile picking robots, autonomous light vans and trucks, last mile delivery drones, ground-based last mile delivery droids and so on.

Background

Autonomous cars are the subject of a lot of hype and the media attention. Yet, despite being the largest prize, they will be amongst the last vehicle types to go fully autonomous. This is because their environment is poorly structured, and they are thus hard to autonomize. The current models of ownership and usage also provide a weak motivation for the general public to pay for autonomous driving, constricting adoption to high-end cars until long-term technology learning curves bring prices sufficiently down.

A drastically different picture is found when one looks beyond passenger cars: all manners of commercial vehicles operate in a variety of semi-structured and controlled indoor and outdoor environments. In such cases, the technology barrier to autonomy is lower whilst a pricing system already exists that values the provision of driving services. Warehouses and factories are examples of such environments, and are thus an appealing target for autonomous mobility technology.

Incumbent automated technology to go obsolete

Indeed, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) have been around since 1950s, essentially acting as long-range distributed conveyer systems. This technology itself has matured: sales have diversified beyond just automotive factories and assembly lines, the onus has shifted onto suppliers to spend effort in developing customer specifications, and price pressures are increasingly intense.

The latter is critical in this highly fragmented business landscape where suppliers offer comparable levels of competency. We find that it is likely that companies with partnerships with major forklift players will command a competitive advantage via the removal of margin stacking. This partially explains the recent activities by forklift players to acquire, or partner with, AGV companies.

AGVs, and in recent years AGCs (carts), are enjoying healthy, albeit slow, growth. Yet, the industry is on shaky ground. Indeed, we assess that AGVs will face a slow journey towards technology obsolescence in the next 15 years. The current positive growth rates, we find, give a false sense of long-term security, and companies will increasingly face an adapt-or-die situation.

Indeed, the IDTechEx Research report Mobile Robots and Drones in Material Handling and Logistics 2017-2037 will provide an assessment of why this technology will lose in the long-term. We will also provide a quantitative picture of its modest growth in the near future and its slow decay in the long-term

Rise of independent mobility

The challenge to the incumbent AGV technology comes from the next generation of navigational autonomy technology. Current AGV systems are rigid and require infrastructure modifications, i.e., the placement of references points or lines to guide the vehicles. These systems safely work across all payload ranges. They are however difficult to tweak, require advanced full system planning, and involve a large onsite installation time which represents a major manpower overhead.

Fully autonomous systems will do away with such shortcomings. They offer flexibility in that routes can be changed via a software interface and updated via the cloud, and benefit from short installation time involving the CAD model of the facility and/or the walking around of one robot for ‘training’ it.

Current models all have limited payloads, partially because safety is not yet fully trusted. The robots and software are also still somewhat expensive, limiting applicability to less cost-sensitive sectors. Human workers may also put a resistance to wide-scale adoption, seeing them as more of a threat.

None is however a showstopper. This transition towards infrastructure-free and independent autonomous navigation technology will take place. The payloads will increasingly rise to cover the full spectrum and hardware costs will fall thanks to major investment in other autonomous driving industries. In fact, we assess that very soon costs across the board will fall below the level of AGVs since they save on installation and infrastructure modification costs.

This story can be contextualized as part of a slow change in the navigation technology for AGVs moving from low-cost wire or magnetic tape guidance to laser localization and now to natural feature recognition and SLAM. This technology evolution however increasingly necessitates a transformation in the nature of the companies towards software and algorithm plays. Indeed, it is the importance of software (autonomy algorithms, fleet/inventory management systems, user interfaces) that explains why California has emerged as a hotspot for investment and start-ups in this arena.

Luckily, many of the major changes will arrive in small evolutionary steps, giving the wise incumbents the chance to go with the flow and exploit their customer relationship and application know-how to stay in the warehouse/factory mobility automation game. They will however have to fundamentally alter their engineering skillset.

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Colossal value transfer towards vehicle suppliers?

Independent autonomous navigation enables the mobile material handling vehicle industry (e.g., forklifts, tugs, etc) to generate far more revenue than would have been the case without autonomous mobility. Indeed, vehicle suppliers will increasingly capture the value that currently goes to the wage bill spent on human-provided driving services.

As quantitatively demonstrated in our twenty-year forecasts, this will represent a major sum despite the fact that our projected figures for future autonomous mobility hardware costs suggest a long-term devaluation of driving services in high-wage regions.

Our technology roadmaps also suggest that autonomous forklifts will soon become a major feature of the industry, despite them not even being mentioned in major forklift companies’ investor presentations today. Indeed, our forecast model suggests that nearly 70% of all forklift sold in 2038 will be autonomous.

This transformation will of course not take place overnight. Indeed, the timescales of adoption will be long, explaining why in our study we have chosen to build 20-year models where different phases of growth are clearly marked and underlying assumptions/conditions explained.

In our forecast model for autonomous mobile industrial material handling vehicles, we project that annual sales of autonomous versions will steady rise but remain a tiny share of the global addressable market until around 2023. We will then enter the rapid growth phase soon after, causing a transformation of the industry and dramatically raising adoption levels.

Note that the forklift industry is open to innovation. It embraced electric powertrains in the past, particularly for indoor environments and in Europe. It will also adopt autonomous navigation. In fact, merger and acquisition between forklift and automation (also AGV) companies is already a noteworthy trend.

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Beyond the confines of factories and warehouses

Interestingly, new types of mobile robots are emerging. Here, the rise of navigational autonomy will enable mobile material handling units (robots) to enter new walks of life. This is because mobile robots will become increasingly able and authorized to share spaces with humans, intelligently navigating their way and avoiding objects. They will therefore enter new spaces to ferry items around, diffusing from highly controlled and structured environments towards increasingly less structured ones.

These technologies will share a common technology platform with other autonomous material handling units, although each application will need to be adapted to each environment, and this ability to customize (or initiate) will remain a source of value for start-ups and SME for years to come.

Here, currently, the hardware is often an integral part of the software which is customized to each environment. This prevents commoditization in the short- to medium-term, but will not manage to prevent in the long term. Consequently, such mobile robotic companies will inevitably have to seek new sources of revenue. Therefore, a long-term re-thinking of business models will be required with emphasis shifting from the robot onto data-based or delivery services. Our contacts tell us that this re-thinking too has already begun.

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Earth 2050: memory chips for kids, telepathy for adults

An astonishing set of predictions for the next 30 years includes a major challenge to the privacy of our thoughts.

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Buy 2050, most kids may be fitted with the latest memory boosting implants, and adults will have replaced mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought.

These are some of the more dramatic forecasts in Earth 2050, an award-winning, interactive multimedia project that accumulates predictions about social and technological developments for the upcoming 30 years. The aim is to identify global challenges for humanity and possible ways of solving these challenges. The website was launched in 2017 to mark Kaspersky Lab’s 20th birthday. It comprises a rich variety of predictions and future scenarios, covering a wide range of topics.

Recently a number of new contributions have been added to the site. Among them Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Professor at Cambridge University and former President of the Royal Society; investor and entrepreneur Steven Hoffman, Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, along withDmitry Galov, security researcher and Alexey Malanov, malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab.

The new visions for 2050 consider, among other things:

  • The replacement of mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought – able to upload skills and knowledge in return – and the impact of this on individual consciousness and privacy of thought.
  • The ability to transform all life at the genetic level through gene editing.
  • The potential impact of mistakes made by advanced machine-learning systems/AI.
  • The demise of current political systems and the rise of ‘citizen governments’, where ordinary people are co-opted to approve legislation.
  • The end of the techno-industrial age as the world runs out of fossil fuels, leading to economic and environmental devastation.
  • The end of industrial-scale meat production, as most people become vegan and meat is cultured from biopsies taken from living, outdoor reared livestock.

The hypothetical prediction for 2050 from Dmitry Galov, security researcher at Kaspersky Lab is as follows: “By 2050, our knowledge of how the brain works, and our ability to enhance or repair it is so advanced that being able to remember everything and learn new things at an outrageous speed has become commonplace. Most kids are fitted with the latest memory boosting implants to support their learning and this makes education easier than it has ever been. 

“Brain damage as a result of head injury is easily repaired; memory loss is no longer a medical condition, and people suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression, are quickly cured.  The technologies that underpin this have existed in some form since the late 2010s. Memory implants are in fact a natural progression from the connected deep brain stimulation implants of 2018.

“But every technology has another side – a dark side. In 2050, the medical, social and economic impact of memory boosting implants are significant, but they are also vulnerable to exploitation and cyber-abuse. New threats that have appeared in the last decade include the mass manipulation of groups through implanted or erased memories of political events or conflicts, and even the creation of ‘human botnets’. 

“These botnets connect people’s brains into a network of agents controlled and operated by cybercriminals, without the knowledge of the victims themselves.  Repurposed cyberthreats from previous decades are targeting the memories of world leaders for cyber-espionage, as well as those of celebrities, ordinary people and businesses with the aim of memory theft, deletion of or ‘locking’ of memories (for example, in return for a ransom).  

“This landscape is only possible because, in the late 2010s when the technologies began to evolve, the potential future security vulnerabilities were not considered a priority, and the various players: healthcare, security, policy makers and more, didn’t come together to understand and address future risks.”

For more information and the full suite of inspirational and thought-provoking predictions, visit Earth 2050.

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Pizoelectrics: Healthcare’s new gymnasts of gadgetry

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Healthcare electronics is rapidly deploying for wellness, electroceuticals, and intrusive medical procedures, among other, powered by new technologies. Much of it is trending to diagnostics and treatment on the move, and removing the need for the patient to perform procedures on time. 

Instruments become wearables, including electronic skin patches and implants. The IDTechEx Research report, “Piezoelectric Harvesting and Sensing for Healthcare 2019-2029”, notes that sensors should preferably be self-powered, non-poisonous even on disposal, and many need to be biocompatible and even biodegradable. 

We need to detect biology, vibration, force, acceleration, stress and linear movement and do imaging. Devices must reject bacteria and be useful in wearables and Internet of Things nodes. Preferably we must move to one device performing multiple tasks. 

So is there a gymnast material category that has that awesome versatility? 

Piezoelectrics has a good claim. It measures all those parameters. That even includes biosensors where the piezo senses the swelling of a biomolecule recognizing a target analyte. The most important form of self-powered (one material, two functions) piezo sensing is ultrasound imaging, a market growing at 5.1% yearly. 

The IDTechEx Research report looks at what comes next, based on global travel and interviewing by its PhD level analysts in 2018 with continuous updates.  

Click here to read how Piezo has been reinvented.

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