How Robots Will Transform the 2020s


The service bot will revolutionize warehouses, hospitals, farms, and maybe your home.

There are now some 120,000 warehouses globally, and another 50,000 are likely to be added before 2025. Over the next few years, more robots will be deployed into these warehouses—the logistics market—than in all other application categories combined, including farming, medicine, and home use. Just as the 1960s saw the mechanization of industry, with an accompanying boom in productivity and prosperity, the 2020s will be the dawn of the robotification of services.

Box Bots

Industrial robots came into use in 1961 when General Motors (G.M.) installed a simple robotic arm on its New Jersey production line. The machine had been invented by Unimation, a company founded by the father of robotics, Joseph Engelberger—a self-professed Isaac Asimov enthusiast. By 1969, G.M. rebuilt its Lordstown, Ohio, factory with an array of Unimates to perform welds, and the facility soon achieved a twofold leap over its former production rate, making it the most productive factory in the world. (That same factory would be sold in 2020 to startup Lordstown Motors, with plans to make electric trucks.) Automobile manufacturers everywhere were among the first and fastest to embrace industrial robots.

The International Federation of Robotics, founded in 1987, issues an annual robot census. When 2020 began, it found nearly 400 million industrial robots at work in factories around the world, twice the number from five years earlier. But for the first time, over half of all robot purchases globally were in services, not industrial applications. And while growth in the latter is expected to continue, installations of service bots are expected to rise more than 200 percent in just a couple of years.

About half of all service robots are found in the logistics market, with « inspection » applications at about one-fifth. The military, an early and ongoing supporter of robotic technology, accounts for only a tiny fraction of the market. The rest is made up of everything from professional cleaning and fruit picking to delivering medications in hospitals.

Read more