SAN JOSE, Calif. — Industrial robots are poised for change.

They will become more integrated, easy to use and widely deployed, especially in China, which is emerging as a center of robotics innovation. Large fulfillment operations run by the likes of Alibaba and Amazon will be drivers in the next stage of their growth.

Those were some of the views of Rodney Brooks, a robotics pioneer and current chairman and CTO of Rethink Robotics, speaking in a keynote at an event here.

Today more than half the cost of a factory robot goes to systems integrators who configure it with sensors and train it, typically writing custom programs and generating proprietary data that stays on the factory floor.

By contrast, tomorrow’s industrial robots will come with integrated sensors and computer vision. They will be trained without elaborate coding on open platforms that send their data to cloud services. And widely used programmable logic computers (PLCs) will become “art projects,” Brooks predicted.

“Today’s business model is going away…We are in an industry where deployment speed is like molasses, but it’s not going to be like that forever,” he said.

Brooks imagined a future where untethered robots, respond to voice commands, freeing their supervisors from today’s interactions via scripting languages. “In the last five years, we have seen a tremendous increase in functionality in speech systems…speech is going to be fine in factories,” he said.

“The robot industry is squarely stuck in the 20th century…[but] there are so many little startups coming along that things are going to happen, so start worrying because hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs are coming,” he told an audience of several hundred industrial robot builders.

China alone has several hundred robotics startups today. They are fueled by a government industrial policy that wants to maintain China’s standing as a global manufacturing center.  Robots are also seen as key to dealing with a labor shortage for factory jobs where turnover rates vary from 16-30 percent, Brooks said.

“A lot of these China startups are low-end manufacturers of cheaper light industrial robots with six-degrees of freedom, dragging prices down so it’s hard for U.S. and European companies to compete there… we can scoff at their level of innovation, but it’s only a matter of time before it increases,” he said.

So far, promises of millions of robots on Foxconn lines in China have not come true, in part due to the challenges with programming today’s robots, said Brooks, who had his original Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners made by toy manufacturers in Shenzhen. With 20 million units sold, the Roomba became the largest selling robot to date.

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