Robotics as a Service: can it offer affordable, reduced-risk automation?

Robots are a common sight in manufacturing production lines but are now increasingly deployed in logistics and, in the future, may play a more prominent role in the service industry. But with companies working to tight budgets, could renting robots become the norm?

Robots have been in production lines for years, assembling everything from cars to white goods and making manufacturers more efficient and productive. And it shows little sign of changing: the global manufacturing industry is facing a labor shortfall and needs more workers as it attempts to bounce back from the disruptions of the past couple of years.

So, what has happened to the manufacturing workforce? The manufacturing industry was already dealing with a significant labor shortages before the pandemic hit. In the U.S. alone, it is predicted that the manufacturing industry will face a shortfall of two million workers by 2030. Even if every skilled worker in the U.S. were employed in manufacturing, there would still be 35% more job openings than the workers available.

The pandemic further exacerbated the issue, after which manufacturers had to face up to an even smaller talent pool and soaring labor costs. With the world’s economies starting to recover and consumer spending inching increasingly closer to pre-pandemic levels, companies are seeking ways to get back to full production levels. An absence of skills and labor hinders that prospect.

Robotics is already in play in other areas

In addition to their role in manufacturing, robots have been deployed to carry out tasks in logistics and warehousing, too. Autonomous warehouse robots move, sort and organize products according to specific arrangement patterns or take goods from a storage units to loading bays. They’re also used for performing inspection and surveillance work in warehouses. It’s an area that seems a natural fit for robots, and research from LogisticsIQ has found that the warehouse automation market will double in value from 2019 to be worth $30 billion at a CAGR of 14%.

It might be surprising that robots are now performing many other jobs outside of manufacturing and logistics – they’re just not as visible or perhaps as accepted as they are on production lines. In Singapore, robots are present in food and beverage outlets, taking orders from diners and delivering their meals. There are nine robots for every 100 workers in Singapore. They are doing jobs ranging from information counter attendants to materials scanners on construction sites, from metro station coffee servers to hotel security guards and even museum guides. South Korea, so often at the cutting edge of digital advancements, also has service robots in all kinds of jobs, with 230,000 service bots forecast to be in circulation by 2025. A significant proportion of these robots are used in healthcare and restaurants. It would seem that demand is there if the model is viable.

What remains to be seen is what other potential sectors and tasks robots could be expanded to moving forward. If the real world follows many of the trends laid down in science fiction, then domestic robots that can clean, cook, repair and guard may be a segment ripe for development. But the large-scale rollout of robots into the mainstream might depend primarily on an economic model that makes it possible. And there will be localization issues: robots will need to be language and geographically specific, so this will likely mean that manufacturers of cleaning robots, for example, would work with third-party service providers to deliver them.

Robotics as a Service

As in so many areas of business where companies don’t have the time and/or money to buy, set up and integrate robots into operations, a fully-managed robot service might be the way forward. Robotics as a Service (RaaS) has the potential to open up robotics to a much bigger audience, and two likely business models will enable this.

One is a time-based lease approach, whereby companies rent a robot from a supplier for a specific period of time or term, such as on a weekly or monthly basis. The other approach is a task-based lease model, where companies rent the robot and are charged based on the number of tasks the robot performs.

Both could make robots more affordable and a more viable way of helping with the labor shortfall. And as with all as-a-service (XaaS) models, RaaS would remove the need for expensive CAPEX and the need to build in complex infrastructure and would enable a lower expertise barrier to entry – you’re paying a specialist to do something you don’t have the in-house skills to do.

In terms of updates and overall management, what looks most likely is that third-party providers will handle all the robot management. This means scheduling robots and pushing over-the-air software updates, all performed via the cloud. This would provide convenience for companies using the robots, as well as scalability, as it’s as easy to deploy 100 robots as just one. Tasks would be allocated to robots dynamically based on their specific capabilities and roles.

Expenditure has always been seen as a barrier to entry for companies that want to deploy robots. A couple of years ago, McKinsey found that 53% of business leaders said high costs were the leading challenge they faced in rolling out robotics. But RaaS can offer the flexibility companies want: because companies don’t need to buy robots outright, they also don’t have to spend lots of money on training them to fit a specific work environment. Ease of use and third-party supplier expertise also minimize any potential workflow disruptions.

Minimizing risk, targeting outcomes

RaaS can be the model that many companies need to give them a foot on the ladder of robotics and on the way to reaping the flexibility and efficiency benefits of automation. Speaking about RaaS on a recent Orange Silicon Valley Hello Show webinar, Malcolm Kerr, Head of Growth and GTM Strategy at robotics specialist Formic, said, “There’s uncertainty around outcomes. You can invest a ton of money into a robotic system, but what happens if something changes a year from now? What happens if that system doesn’t work as well as you think it will? You are introducing a lot of complexity and a lot of risk when you automate. We see time and time again in facilities that there is a robot in the corner collecting dust. Because we thought it would be able to do this thing and it couldn’t. Or it malfunctioned and we didn’t have anybody who could fix it.”

By using specialist third-party providers to deliver the RaaS expertise they need, companies across all kinds of sectors can start making the most of robotics, overcoming labor challenges and preparing all sorts of operations for tomorrow.

Watch the Orange Silicon Valley Hello Show webinar that covers Robotics as a Service (RaaS) and how it can help companies reduce the risks of automation.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.