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Robots are coming: How can you use them?

Even though the uptake of robots in South Africa has been slow, they are already being used to or the likes of combatting rhino poaching, showing that we are recognising their advantages, writes HANS KUIPERS, Partner & MD at BCG South Africa.

The global market for robotics—the use of computer-controlled robots to do manual tasks—is growing far faster than expected. In 2014, BCG projected that the market would reach $67 billion by 2025. In 2017, we increased that estimate to $87 billion. Much of the accelerated growth will come from the consumer market because of applications such as self-­driving cars and devices for the home.

Although uptake of robotics in South Africa has been slower than in developed markets – there is no generally accepted valuation of what the market is worth in the country, for instance – there is growing recognition of the opportunities the field provides and the massive potential for growth moving forward. Already there are examples of South African-produced robotics that are assisting in combatting rhino poaching, as well as in dangerous industrial applications such as in mines or on oil rigs. This indicates that South Africa is increasingly adopting robotics as its value is recognised.

Today’s robots have voice and language recognition, access to large amounts of data, algorithms to process information independently, learning capability, greater mobility and dexterity, advanced sensors, and the ability to interact with their environment. They have gained flexibility, speed, and finesse, clearing the way for a generation of precision robots that can make a difference in diverse industries such as retail, health care, food processing, mining, transportation, and agriculture —far more quickly and accurately than human hands can.

As people become more accepting of robots in their everyday lives, this will attract more investment capital and drive further advances in robotic capabilities.

The impact of these changes will be profound. Differences in labour costs between developed countries and emerging economies will cease to be a critical factor for companies deciding where to set up operations, and new factors will come to the fore.

As falling prices, faster CPUs, improved safety, and easier programming continue to place robots within reach of virtually every sector, and their ability to work side by side with humans opens up an array of new applications, the challenge for forward-looking companies is going to be to figure out how to use robotics to gain a competitive edge.

How to gain a robotics advantage

Gaining robotics advantage involves finding innovative, unexpected ways to leverage technology to differentiate a company from the competition and gain a sustainable edge. This may mean identifying the sweet spot where a hybrid mix of human worker and machine delivers the biggest payback, or it may involve creating an entirely new business model. On the basis of BCG’s experience in a variety of industries, we’ve developed a framework to help companies move forward:

 – Identify potential leverage points

Companies should look for areas of the business where robotics might be able to add value by cutting costs, enhancing productivity, improving performance, reducing risk, and addressing skill shortages or workforce variability. Cost savings are likely to be greatest in parts of the world where wages are high and robots could replace labour outright. Areas with highly repetitive or dangerous tasks, or jobs that require flexibility, speed, or precision are also natural fits for robotics. In mining, for example, automated drilling and haulage can reduce the need for workers in remote locations, increase safety, and improve asset utilisation – an area that is already being explored by companies such as Ryonic Robotics in South Africa.

Robots can also be used to take on repetitive, low-skill tasks. Collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ can do heavy lifting and perform precision activities more quickly than human workers can. By liberating workers from tedious, tiresome, or repetitive tasks, robots can improve not only the workers’ productivity but also their job satisfaction. An example of this in South Africa was the introduction of a robot to help sort and collect antiretroviral medication quickly and accurately to dispense to HIV-positive patients at the Helen Joseph hospital HIV clinic in Johannesburg.

– Integrate robotics into strategic decision making

Adding robotics to a business is a strategic decision, not just a capital investment. It requires rethinking and fundamentally altering staffing levels, product mix, manufacturing footprint, and other aspects of the business model. Management must also consider how robotics will affect the company’s brand, operations, and sales. For instance, building robot-enhanced plants closer to local markets may make sense as a way to accelerate response times and to fine-tune products to local tastes – or splitting production into two shifts—a day shift for humans and a night shift for robots—may help to reduce overtime, super­vision, and energy costs.

– Think and act now

Where new technologies are concerned, timing is critical to market leadership. When robotics and automation cross certain price, performance, and adoption thresholds, a tipping point may be near. First movers capture a disproportionate share of the high margins that accrue to successful early adopters. That benefit decreases as adoption becomes more widespread. And because it can take a long time to integrate automation into operations, management needs to act now to develop a point of view, test and pilot robotic applications, and invest in infrastructure—including laying the foundation for a digital supply chain on the factory floor. All the while, the company must closely monitor the industry sector it competes in and move decisively when the time is right.

–  Analyse whether to buy or to build

Proven, off-the-shelf robotics applications can be put to work quickly, but they’re available to everyone, including the competition. An alternative is to invest in a robotics solution tailored to a company’s particular operations. A customised solution could result in fundamental disruption of an industry’s dynamics and provide a long-term source of differentiation.

The decision about which direction to take may come down to sourcing options. Most companies will need to look beyond traditional equipment suppliers for their robotics needs. But even robotics suppliers may not have solutions on hand that meet the specific needs of individual companies or segments, necessitating a customized solution.

–  Develop the workforce

To fully unlock the potential of robotics, countries must retrain or increase the skills of their workforce. Today’s workers generally lack training in robotics installation, programming, operations and maintenance. Few governments, universities, vocational schools, tech leaders and manufacturers around the world are adequately addressing the problem. Despite some progress in early education through STEM initiatives—courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and in universities with specific degrees related to robotics, an ability gap remains.

Without a pool of qualified applicants to choose from, companies will need to train their own people to install, program, operate and maintain robotics applications. Retaining these people once they have acquired high-demand, high-value skills will be another challenge. As robots take over lower-value and repetitive tasks, the work that remains will be more complex and less structured—and workers will need new skills to perform these tasks successfully.

–  Shape public policy

Companies that make or use robotics should work with communities, educators, local governments and policymakers on issues related to safety, liability, social impact and funding for education and training. By gaining a seat at the table, companies at the forefront of robotics can help define the rules, ensure progress and become advocates for the needs of industry and society alike.

Beyond helping to craft policy for robots that operate in public spaces, companies should participate in setting safety requirements at work, especially as cobots become more prevalent. As robots become safer, the certi­fication process ­should become quicker and less onerous, encouraging further development in the field of automation.

Collectively, the guidelines outlined above can help companies approach robotics in a strategic, disciplined, and pragmatic way—and improve their odds of achieving long-term, sustainable robotics advantage.

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Veeam passes $1bn, prepares for cloud’s ‘Act II’

Leader in cloud-data management reveals how it will harness the next growth phase of the data revolution, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

Veeam Software, the quiet leader in backup solutions for cloud data management,has announced that it has passed $1-billion in revenues, and is preparing for the next phase of sustained growth in the sector.

Now, it is unveiling what it calls Act II, following five years of rapid growth through modernisation of the data centre. At the VeeamON 2019conferencein Miami this week, company co-founder Ratmir Timashev declared that the opportunities in this new era, focused on managing data for the hybrid cloud, would drive the next phase of growth.

“Veeam created the VMware backup market and has dominated it as the leader for the last decade,” said Timashev, who is also executive vice president for sales and marketing at the organisation. “This was Veeam’s Act I and I am delighted that we have surpassed the $1 billion mark; in 2013 I predicted we’d achieve this in less than six years. 

“However, the market is now changing. Backup is still critical, but customers are now building hybrid clouds with AWS, Azure, IBM and Google, and they need more than just backup. To succeed in this changing environment, Veeam has had to adapt. Veeam, with its 60,000-plus channel and service provider partners and the broadest ecosystem of technology partners, including Cisco, HPE, NetApp, Nutanix and Pure Storage, is best positioned to dominate the new cloud data management in our Act II.”

In South Africa, Veeam expects similar growth. Speaking at the Cisco Connect conference in Sun City this week, country manager Kate Mollett told Gadget’s BRYAN TURNER that the company was doing exceptionally well in this market.

“In financial year 2018, we saw double-digit growth, which was really very encouraging if you consider the state of the economy, and not so much customer sentiment, but customers have been more cautious with how they spend their money. We’ve seen a fluctuation in the currency, so we see customers pausing with big decisions and hoping for a recovery in the Rand-Dollar. But despite all of the negatives, we have double digit growth which is really good. We continue to grow our team and hire.

“From a Veeam perspective, last year we were responsible for Veeam Africa South, which consisted of South Africa, SADC countries, and the Indian Ocean Islands. We’ve now been given the responsibility for the whole of Africa. This is really fantastic because we are now able to drive a single strategy for Africa from South Africa.”

Veeam has been the leading provider of backup, recovery and replication solutions for more than a decade, and is growing rapidly at a time when other players in the backup market are struggling to innovate on demand.

“Backup is not sexy and they made a pretty successful company out of something that others seem to be screwing up,” said Roy Illsley, Distinguished Analyst at Ovum, speaking in Miami after the VeeamOn conference. “Others have not invested much in new products and they don’t solve key challenges that most organisations want solved. Theyre resting on their laurels and are stuck in the physical world of backup instead of embracing the cloud.”

Illsley readily buys into the Veeam tagline. “It just works”. 

“They are very good at marketing but are also a good engineering comany that does produce the goods. Their big strength, that it just works, is a reliable feature they have built into their product portfolio.”

Veeam said in statement from the event that, while it had initially focused on server virtualisation for VMware environments, in recent years it had expanded this core offering. It was now delivering integration with multiple hypervisors, physical servers and endpoints, along with public and software-as-a-service workloads, while partnering with leading cloud, storage, server, hyperconverged (HCI) and application vendors.

This week, it  announced a new “with Veeam”program, which brings in enterprise storage and hyperconverged (HCI) vendors to provide customers with comprehensive secondary storage solutions that combine Veeam software with industry-leading infrastructure systems. Companies like ExaGrid and Nutanix have already announced partnerships.

Timashev said: “From day one, we have focused on partnerships to deliver customer value. Working with our storage and cloud partners, we are delivering choice, flexibility and value to customers of all sizes.”

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‘Energy scavenging’ funded

As the drive towards a 5G future gathers momentum, the University of Surrey’s research into technology that could power countless internet enabled devices – including those needed for autonomous cars – has won over £1M from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and industry partners.

Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) has been working on triboelectric nanogenerators (TENG), an energy harvesting technology capable of ‘scavenging’ energy from movements such as human motion, machine vibration, wind and vehicle movements to power small electronic components. 

TENG energy harvesting is based on a combination of electrostatic charging and electrostatic induction, providing high output, peak efficiency and low-cost solutions for small scale electronic devices. It’s thought such devices will be vital for the smart sensors needed to enable driverless cars to work safely, wearable electronics, health sensors in ‘smart hospitals’ and robotics in ‘smart factories.’ 

The ATI will be partnered on this development project with the Georgia Institute of Technology, QinetiQ, MAS Holdings, National Physical Laboratory, Soochow University and Jaguar Land Rover. 

Professor Ravi Silva, Director of the ATI and the principal investigator of the TENG project, said: “TENG technology is ideal to power the next generation of electronic devices due to its small footprint and capacity to integrate into systems we use every day. Here at the ATI, we are constantly looking to develop such advanced technologies leading towards our quest to realise worldwide “free energy”.

“TENGs are an ideal candidate to power the autonomous electronic systems for Internet of Things applications and wearable electronic devices. We believe this research grant will allow us to further the design of optimized energy harvesters.”

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