The robots are coming! This is something we've known for a while. Industrial robots, mostly used on assembly lines, have been around for decades, and their use is still growing exponentially. Consumer robots, on the other hand, have been moving into our lives at a slow pace. But that is about to change.
Recently, Juniper Research forecast that by 2020, 10% of American households would have at least one robot, up from just 4% this year.
Juniper Research author Steffen Sorrell notes in his report that “The state of consumer robotics could be compared to the PC in the late '70s” and adds, “Venture capitalist and corporate investment has ramped up tremendously recently – they know that this is the start of a paradigm shift in the way we use and interact with machines.”
The rise in availability and penetration of consumer robots is directly tied to the falling cost of 3D printing, widely used for prototyping. The price of a high-quality 3D printer has come down much faster than traditional 2D printers, following a similar curve as high-tech devices such as computers and smartphones. While back in 2002 the price of a “low-cost” Stratasys 3D printer was around $30,000, a similar device can be found today for less than $1,200 on Amazon.
That is what is making prototyping fast, easy, and cheap. And that is what “Roboticists,” or robot makers, need to be able to design and test new models.
In his bestselling book titled The Zero Marginal Cost Society, Jeremy Rifkin points out that “with 3D printers, products can also be customized to create a single product or small batches designed to order, at minimum cost. Centralized factories, with their capital-intensive economies of scale and expensive fixed-production lines designed for mass production, lack the agility to compete with a 3D production process that can create a single customized product at virtually the same unit cost as it can producing 100,000 copies of the same item.”
Roboticists need no longer be constrained by existing off-the-shelf parts. Now they can design and print their own parts any time in the comfort of their office, home, or nearby Fab Lab. To speed up testing, they can also try new variations and adjustments almost in real time.
Once the final design, prototyping and testing is complete, high-quality molds for mass production can also be produced by 3D printers, shattering the high-cost of industrial molds, and reducing the time to market.
There are some hurdles to be overcome, Juniper Research finds, including trust between humans and robots. The report finds that “trust is rapidly eroded, even if a robot is able to perform better than a human on average.”
Companies such as iRobot, the manufacturer of the Roomba, and Droplet Robotics, are continuously improving the design of their household robots, and new, smaller competitors, are offering a new level of convenience for consumers.
Many new designs such as this Solar Robotic Pool Cleaner are also starting to appear on crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, making it possible for designers to get the necessary funding to develop their product.
Most of the robots purchased will the so-called 'task' oriented ones, assigned to take over traditional chores, such as lawn mowing or vacuum cleaning. Household robots are far from perfect, but we can expect new models to start performing more tasks and doing them better. At the same time the price of these robots will drop to an affordable point for the average consumer and will usher in a new era of housekeeping.