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5 Trends We're Watching in 2021

By Team InOrbit

With 2020 in the rear-view mirror, the world turns its focus to 2021 and the challenges of adapting to the new world created by last year’s global events.

Here are five big trends that we’re monitoring at InOrbit related to robotics and automation:

#1: Robot projects started in 2020 will mature this year

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020, most companies either placed existing robotics and automation projects on hold, or they quickly accelerated them to account for the sudden rise in demand due to e-commerce customers orders within a company’s supply chain and logistics areas. In addition, the reduction in the supply of qualified labor in many industries had businesses looking for automation answers.

For companies that didn’t have an automation project in the pipeline, 2020 likely meant doing a lot of research and “getting the ball rolling” on projects, which will likely see some significant results during 2021. Deploying a robotics project is not as easy as flipping a switch - most of them take from six months to a year to complete, depending on the complexity of the tasks being automated, the number of locations, etc. 

Now that we have been in a COVID world for 10-plus months, we are at the stage where these early deployments have either borne fruit or struggled to succeed. At InOrbit, we are interested in both of these stages - we can help those who succeeded to make them scale their business by helping them optimize the full potential of their robot fleets. For those who struggled or failed, we can help them get back on track through the use of our robotics operations platform to improve the return on investment (ROI) and meet stringent service level agreements (SLAs).

For those companies that weren’t able to pivot as quickly, we would expect them to use 2021 to make sure that robotics and automation is part of their plan for the post-pandemic era, given the rising awareness and importance of robotics moving forward.

#2: New markets and ideas for robots

Staying in the COVID-19 motif, the pandemic created new opportunities and challenges for companies as their staff were sent home to work remotely, or healthcare groups struggled to figure out ways to safely and securely figure out ways to test for the virus.

Scores of companies took advantage of the year, taking autonomous mobile robots and adding functionality that could disinfect rooms via ultraviolet light. Or they ramped up production of floor-cleaning robots to produce systems for businesses looking to re-open while responding to new cleaning regulations.

This year, we’ll likely see growth in these markets, but we’ll also see new methods and possibly new robotics companies looking to solve task-based problems, such as rapid testing, vaccine production and other mobile delivery tasks. Those companies looking to scale their fleets beyond the 5-10 robots they produced will certainly need a platform to take them to the next level.

We would also expect to see some new markets and business models show up - could we see the beginnings of new jobs and roles for robot operators, such as the Roboteer? It’s clear that artificial intelligence and robotics engineering roles are hot, but we think that as companies get more experience with deployed robots, new roles will emerge.

#3: Multi-robot, multi-vendor fleets and multi-task robots begin to emerge

There are several customer deployments where fleets of robots are moving around a warehouse, retail center or other locations, but typically they are from a single vendor with a single software platform attached to them. But as customers begin to get more comfortable with the idea of tasks being performed by robots, they will likely look for additional robots to perform those tasks, or they will look for the robots themselves to perform multiple tasks.

It’s less likely for the latter to occur, as getting a robot to perform a single task successfully 100 percent of the time in a dynamic environment has proven challenging (see “Your Robot Will Fail”). More likely is that customers will begin to adopt robots from other vendors to perform these new tasks, and will expect that a single platform can monitor operations between both sets of robots. This will also likely mean work on some kind of interoperability or communications between the two different types of robots. A cleaning robot and an inventory robot in a grocery store, for example, should be able to spot each other and share information about their environment.

This is still in its early stages, and fortunately groups like the Robot Operations Group and others are working on setting up best practices for the eventuality of multi-robot, multi-vendor fleets and orchestration processes among them.

#4: Watching the adoption of 5G and Edge networks

Communications and other technology companies will continue to deploy 5G wireless technologies in different cities and regions, in order to give them faster networking connectivity and lower latency than current 4G systems. Among its other benefits, this is big news for companies looking to utilize cloud technologies for use in automation and robotics processes, since the lower latencies offered in 5G allow for faster processing in the cloud instead of having to rely on more expensive hardware on the robot.

As rollouts continue through the year, we will be interested in the types of companies looking to take advantage of 5G - will it be consumers who are just looking for the latest smartphone, or will businesses be looking at innovative ways to deploy larger and smarter fleets of robots to help get tasks automated? 

#5: The growth of AgTech Robotics

Despite many advances in technologies improving the way we grow and harvest our food, robotics in the agriculture space is still needed to support continued labor shortages for many farms around the world. Whether it’s robots growing and tending plants, or coming up with new ways to improve the sustainable use of the land, it’s becoming clear that more automation and robots are needed to feed the continually growing population of the planet.

In 2021, we would expect to continue to see companies exploring these horizons, especially as technology improves on robotic grippers and computer vision to allow for the better and faster picking of crops than robots could do in previous years. It’s a fascinating market worth watching during the year.

What else is on the horizon?

Nobody (except maybe Bill Gates) could have predicted the disruption that occurred in 2020, so we’re not going to pretend to know all the answers of what will happen this year. Who knows, an alien spaceship could land in the middle of Kansas and we’ll be living out another science-fiction movie scenario through the rest of the year.

If you’re working in any of these existing areas of robotics, or future markets or new robots, InOrbit can help you from the beginning - even if you only have a handful of robots. Our goal is to maximize the potential of every robot – whether it’s a single robot, or fleet of hundreds or thousands. Let’s talk.