Hannover Messe, one of the world’s leading trade fairs for industrial technology, returned in full force this year. The BCC Research team, consisting of Greg Johnson (Associate Director of Consulting), Michael Goeloe (Senior Account Manager), and Erik Yurof (Senior Director of Account Management), were kept busy at the event, participating in industry discussions on the latest in AI. Industrial transformation was a key theme at the event, which is naturally aided by the integration of intelligent technology into workflows and manufacturing. One of the key facets of this transformation will be the integration of soft robots, which are simply robots made of softer materials.
Soft robots are revolutionary for a few key reasons. As well as their practical benefits, soft robots are successful because they’re far more inviting than their harder counterparts. Humans have found it more natural to interact and engage with a soft robot, as it more closely mimics a biological organism. They’ve enabled multiple industries (healthcare, food processing, and warehousing, to name a few) to become automated. Although still in their early stages, soft robots are expected to truly take off over the next few years. In fact, BCC Research estimates market expansion at a CAGR of a staggering 37.8% through 2026, to reach a figure of $4.3 billion.
Given the strong focus on robotics at Hannover Messe, we’re going to be examining the future of soft robots, and how they fit into the wider industrial transformation that is being so heavily anticipated.
Future of soft robotics
The soft robotics market is technologically advancing at a faster pace than regular robotics. Just like how the soft robot is considered an advancement from regular robots, soft robotics is also carving out new technological avenues. In the future, when automation becomes inevitable, advanced robots will be increasingly built on three technologies in particular: sensors, actuators, and AI.
Aside from industrial transformation, centimeter-sized soft robots are already being used to perform surgery and enter other minuscule spaces, using a method devised by researchers at Harvard University. The researchers are strategically focusing on developing these robots, as the smaller sizes and flexibility of these robots could enable an entirely new approach to endoscopy and microsurgery.
In the future, edible soft robotics will be another branch of soft robotics. Edible transistors, batteries, electrodes, capacitors and sensors have already been created by scientists. If these are paired with actuators (or motors) that are also edible, these robots then can be used to support the battery-assisted medical inserts in the heart.
Researchers have developed a solution (an organic ionic liquid-based conductive ink) that is likely to be implemented across soft robot manufacturers. This ink can be 3D printed within the soft materials used in soft robots. With this capability, the invention paves the way for better device designs and fabrication in the field of soft robotics.
Besides, with the robot’s ability to work along with the humans in manufacturing units, the next-level advancement towards safety would be giving them the ability to learn and adapt to the environment, which can be achieved through AI.
Research studies conducted by NVIDIA, a prominent semiconductor manufacturer, in collaboration with the Department of Computer Science at the University of Copenhagen intended to create fast high-fidelity simulators for training AI in order to control the motion of soft robots. These simulators are expected to address the need of the soft robotics market for accuracy and speed together. Such advancement is expected to increase the usage of soft robots across service applications, like healthcare and household purposes.
Further, researchers at Harvard University believe that AI would bring the best out of exosuits that would enhance the user’s ability to manage multiple tasks. This is followed by the development on iterations of their soft exosuit technology. The university researchers have previously embedded AI inside their suits to make sure the wearer and machine are in sync.
Innovation in the space is further driving more applications of soft robotics. For example, compressible robot and articulated mechanisms (CRAM) that mimics a cockroach's ability to squeeze through the cracks is being used for search and rescue operations. Because of the ability to squeeze into tight spaces and handle things delicately, these soft robots are being considered as ideal tools for emergency services.
Of all the sectors, the food and beverage processing sector is identified to be increasingly adopting industrial automation. For research institutions, like Harvard's Wyss, Sri International and Otherlab, with patented designs, the future is expected to be bright, as more and more investors are gaining confidence on the technology, owing to the increasing use cases across regions.
On successful streamlining of fabrication and commercialization of soft robots (gripper systems and exoskeletons), SMEs across industries, such as food processing and e-commerce warehouses, have multiple options to choose automation that suits their requirements. Once soft gripping systems reach a level of commercial maturity, the anticipated usage of these robots worldwide is expected to provide huge scope for the new grippers in future.
In the human-robot interaction aspect, the German corporation Festo has emerged after ABB, to involve soft materials into its cobot. In addition, the company merged pneumatics and AI, which provides cognitive ability to enable safer human interaction.
Read our full review of Hannover Messe
Hannover Messe 2023 was an event packed full of inspiring discussions about the technologies changing the world for the better. The team has compiled a post-show report detailing all the biggest announcements and news stories from the event – sign up to receive your post-show report here.
To download your complimentary overview of our soft robotics report, click here.
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