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Invented in Europe, commercialised elsewhere

30 August 2011

Speakers at the recent European Robotics Forum in Västerås, Sweden, gave vent to that well known gripe: ‘invented in Europe, commercialised elsewhere’. In particular, they examined past failures in detail to draw out the common themes and ensure that, with an exciting resurgence in European robotics just around the corner, businesses don’t fall into the same old traps again.

Per Ljunggren, of Intelligent Machines, was the brains behind the Electrolux Trilobite, the first commercially available, robotic vacuum cleaner. “Being first on the market is no guarantee of success," he ruefully recalls. "We met all our product objectives except we didn’t become the market leader. With hindsight, we perhaps were too ‘short-termist’. A parallel development to the Trilobite, the Husqvarna Automower, was beset with similar difficulties initially, but they didn’t give up. They redesigned the product, changed the marketing and reduced the price so that now it’s a money spinner.”

European inventors of the past, it seems, were just a little bit one-track minded, often focussing on functionality above other, less tangible virtues, such as looks or fashion. Cyriacus Schultze, founder of The Robot Company and now MD of the Robotstore, pointed out that though wildly successful, Kitchenaids are not sleek, cheap or easy to use.
Giving numerous other examples, he postulated that for new robotic inventions to be adopted, their function must be easily understood, they must be launched at the right time and they must be fully autonomous. Schultze’s new company, the Robotstore scouts the world for new products to nurture and bring to market.

An encouraging aspect that all the speakers agreed on was that the market in domestic robots is growing hugely. Barry Goeree of Philips said that global markets for domestic robots are doubling every year, with the highest demand from Asia. Goerre gave the conference a sneek preview of concepts Philips are developing to service this demand, but warned: “We’ve got the R&D and we’ve got the big brands, but currently, the US and Asia are commercialising faster. With R&D for a new product costing anything between €10-50 million, this is a high risk game, so we need government support if we are to successfully bridge the gap between R&D and consumer sales.”

The Forum’s own euRobotics Technology Transfer Award highlighted the wealth of robotic products that have already been developed in Europe. KUKA-DLR won with a multi-purpose, lightweight robot, developed to imitate a human arm’s dexterity, sensing and strength. But there were plenty of other contenders too, ranging from an interactive robotic birth simulator to an on-line fitting room for clothing retailers using robotic mannequins.

By common consent, the currently prohibitive cost of these bespoke, rather than mass market robots, is something that needs to be addressed if European ideas are to bring cash rather than just kudos. However, assuming this not insignificant obstacle can be overcome, there are potentially big markets out there for service roboticists to address - the ageing population representing one of them.

Surprisingly, we already have a solution; German researchers at the IPA are currently working on the fourth generation of Care-O-bot, a robot specifically developed for elderly care and already able to fetch, carry and do some simple household chores. Martin Haegele of the IPA says that with every component hand-made, the robot currently costs up to €250,000, though his organisation is aiming to bring that down to €10,000 eventually through industrial production.

Wolfgang Heller of Infonaut predicted big changes as wealth in Asia increases to parity with Europe within the next two decades. Service robots in every house might still be some way off, but with European robotic research in the vanguard globally, there are countless niches to exploit, not just in industrial assembly, but in surgery, training, surveillance and distribution. However, for European nations to benefit from their inventions, they must learn the lessons of the past.

For more details about the activities of the European Robotics Research Platform (EURON), click here.

Les Hunt

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