The term robot was used for the first time in 1921 by Karel Capek and since then we have witnessed many interesting developments around robotics. From making mundane interactions simpler to accomplishing complex tasks, robotics has seen an evolution like no other industry. It has also developed cognitive capabilities, speech recognition, natural language processing with time.
But despite all the hype and interesting developments in the field, it doesn’t seem to have matured and attained stability that it should have, given that it is quite old.
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The Robotics Companies Are Failing To Show The Much Promised Growth
It came as a major surprise when the once-hot robotics startup Anki, shut down despite raising over $200 million in venture capital. Around 200 employees were laid off as the company was scrambling to find more money after a new round of financing fell through at the last minute. Having raised money from investors such as Index Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz it was also anticipating acquisition from companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Comcast, which failed to materialise.
Founded by roboticists from Carnegie Mellon University, Anki made a grand entry into the industry, but the buzz cooled down as investors grew wary about its hardware play and how it could sustain given it was in the toy business.
Not just the cutesy miniature robot market but the scenario for much bigger and sophisticated robots doesn’t look glorified either. Boston Robotics, that has been making some interesting robots that could lurch like a human and sprint on four walls, was sold off by Google after it failed to show any profit-making tactics. While these robots showed exceptional functionality, they were unable to generate value for Google.
While SoftBank Group later bought the robotics company making heavy investments in the company, those efforts have yet to deliver hit products or much financial gain.
In 2018 Google also confirmed its intention to shut down Schaft, a Japanese robotics team it acquired in 2013. This was another blow to the robotics business, especially because Schaft’s failures were not technical in nature.
There have been many other blows such as shutting down of Rethink Robotics when it failed to get additional funding, Mayfield Robotics, Jibo and many other companies have shut down in the last few years despite collectively raising hundred million dollars in funding and developing their products over many years.
Why Are Robotics Companies Dying?
It is quite surprising to see that despite the heavy inflow of funds, robotics firms have failed to sustain and mature in the market. Unlike other industries such as SaaS, data science or others, robotics companies tend to take longer to mature. To make the technology work, commercialise it and bringing it to the market is no easy play. There are many underlying reasons that may be attributed to the growing failure.
Robotics is hard: To train machines to perform simple tasks such as climbing stairs, walk or even move left and right is an extremely difficult task. This is one of the reasons that while stationary industrial robots that perform repetitive tasks have been quite a hit but actual walking and moving robots are still a long way to go. Hardware is trickier than software. To deal with control, sensing and other avenues can be challenging.
Demand seems to be lesser than supply: While there are many companies working hard to come up with exceptional robots, the fact is that there hasn’t been an intense need for robots outside of social robots. The demand for actual working robots such as those that Boston Dynamics produce is quite low because of which it is becoming harder to justify the inflow of funds into these companies by investors.
Scope of improvement in hardware and software: While there has been an improvement in hardware and machine learning algorithms, there is still a lot that companies have to work to achieve flawless prototype. Making a single-purpose robot that can do everything well and pose good intelligence is tough. It is difficult to make machines more socially acceptable and less threatening.
Expensive affair: Dealing with a lot of hardware makes the industry an expensive affair. While in most cases investors do not shy away from supporting these companies, there are several others who die before even building a prototype.
India Is Still Catching Up
While the global market looks quite shaky, the scenario back in India doesn’t seem to be any different. India still lags behind other countries such as Japan, the US and Germany when it comes to robotics adoption. There are several challenges such as processes not being very standardised, lack of funds, procurement of required hardware and other electronic components, acquiring and retaining quality talent, failure to generate required ROI, that puts a hold on coming up with exceptional robotic companies.
While the growth is a slow pace, the robotics industry shows promises that it is here to stay and is not going away anytime soon!