Consumer Robotics Market Heating Up with SoftBank, KUKA, and Misty Robotics

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Tractica’s recent updated Robotics Market Forecasts report estimates that the non-industrial robotics market has eclipsed the industrial robotics market in terms of revenue. In 2016, non-industrial robots, which include consumer robots, enterprise robots, autonomous cars, and drones, made up 64% of the total robotics market revenue. The consumer robotics market is expected to see shipments grow to 50 million units by 2022, which is a five-fold increase from today. Consumer robots are essentially household robots like vacuum cleaner robots, personal assistant robots, and toy robots. Tractica expects such a high growth rate in consumer robotics and sees many encouraging signs in the market. For one, the market is clearly moving beyond vacuum robots into newer segments. Vacuum robot companies like iRobot realize that they need to move beyond the cleaning value proposition into smart home applications, transforming the Roomba into a personal assistant robot of sorts. The consumer robot industry has had its issues, with sky-high consumer expectations and crowdfunded projects like Jibo overpromising and underdelivering. Despite the problems, the wider robotics and consumer electronics industry sees the promise and potential of robots in a consumer setting. With the market wide open, it is a matter of time before someone overcomes the technical and design challenges, and offers a compelling value proposition.

Many companies are lining up to meet the challenge and the past few weeks have seen some notable announcements, which suggests that the market’s momentum will only increase in the future.

SoftBank’s Boston Dynamics Acquisition Will Expand its Robotics Portfolio

SoftBank announced that it is acquiring Boston Dynamics, the robotics firm that was part of Alphabet (Google) and was better known for its scary robotic dog videos. SoftBank’s Aldebaran acquisition in 2012, which led to its first personal assistant robot called Pepper has not delivered on its promises, despite some early enthusiasm. Tractica has been following the rollout of Pepper in Japan, Europe, and the United States over the past few years, and while it has a lot of potential in customer-facing applications, software and hardware updates have been generally slow to come by. SoftBank is likely to change course with Boston Dynamics, possibly replacing Pepper with a new robotic platform. It is unclear, and rather unlikely, that Boston Dynamics’ and Aldebaran’s capabilities, cultures, and platforms will be merged within SoftBank. The nerve center for SoftBank Robotics, which to a significant extent has been centered in Paris due to the Aldebaran presence, will now likely shift to Boston. Boston Dynamics gives SoftBank a wider portfolio to play with compared to Aldebaran, covering robotic pets, military robots, and humanoid robots. It would be surprising if SoftBank does not have specific consumer robot offerings planned with Boston Dynamics. Masayoshi Son’s vision of a robot-infused future would be incomplete without a consumer offering.

KUKA’s Collaboration with Midea Opens the Door to the Chinese Market

KUKA Robotics, which is a leading industrial robot manufacturer from Germany, and is currently settling into new Chinese ownership with Midea, has announced plans to move into the personal robot space. As a consumer appliance maker, Midea clearly sees the market moving away from industrial robotics into consumer robotics, and in some ways, is forcing KUKA to act on its plans. Tractica sees more of KUKA’s industrial robot competitors seriously considering diversifying their robotics portfolio. This is no easy challenge for an industrial robot manufacturer like KUKA or for Midea, which has only dealt in consumer appliances. The one advantage that KUKA will have is that Midea will provide unprecedented access to the Chinese market, which offers significant promise for consumer robots in general. The KUKA announcement is also a clear indication of the very real shift from industrial to non-industrial, particularly in terms of consumer robots.

Misty Robotics Moves to Expand Sphero’s Toy Robots into the Home and Office

Misty Robotics is a spinoff from Sphero, which has made its name in toy robotics. Misty recently announced its Series A venture funding of $11.5 million, and that it will be launching an autonomous robot for the home and office in 2018. Sphero has seen a lot of success lately with BB-8, the Star Wars droid that Sphero developed with Disney. Disney is also one of its strategic investors and its latest robotic race car, the Ultimate Lightning McQueen, is another example of how Sphero is supporting Disney. With Sphero continuing to focus on the toy robot segment, the Misty spinoff makes sense as the connected play segment is still very nascent and needs constant focus and innovation as more competition emerges. On the other hand, the personal robot market is almost nonexistent today and, therefore, requires a different approach and dedication to create a compelling and long-lasting value proposition with a range of use cases that could emerge in the home and office. Also, the personal robot market is likely to have a platform approach, open to developers and collaborators to build new applications, while the toy robot segment consists of more specialized themed robots that cater to a specific movie or character.

More Competition to Enter the Consumer Robot Market

SoftBank, KUKA, and Misty Robotics are notable examples of three vastly different companies dipping their heels into the consumer robotics market. SoftBank is one of the more experienced companies in the area of consumer robotics, and with Boston Dynamics it has the capability to become a leading force in consumer robotics, and humanoid robotics in general. We need to wait and watch how SoftBank executes on the Boston Dynamics acquisition. SoftBank’s own Aldebaran acquisition and Boston Dynamics’ relationship with older parent Google have been fraught with issues and struggles. KUKA, with its industrial robotics pedigree, hopes to break into the consumer robot space, with China a likely launch market, giving it a unique advantage. Misty is breaking out of its own connected play and toy robot pedigree, and plans to channel some of the Silicon Valley ethos and energy into building a brand new personal robot. The market for consumer robotics is definitely heating up and the ecosystem is likely to see many more new entrants.

 

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