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How Soon Until You Have a “Home Cobot”?

June 27, 2017
Kuka plans to leverage its experience in robotic design and automation in the consumer market.

In the original “Iron Man,” Tony Stark’s lab is filled with robotic assistants. Of particular note is a robotic arm that continuously misunderstands Stark’s commands, performing its tasks either incorrectly or at importune times. While certainly funny (especially as the robotic arm continues over and over again to shoot the fire extinguisher at Stark), having a robotic arm of your own at home just took another step closer to reality.

The German robotic firm Kuka was recently acquired by Midea, a Chinese home appliance maker. Kuka has long been a staple of the robotic market, and along with other companies like Universal Robots, Rethink Robotics, and FANUC, have led the charge into the world of collaborative robots. Backed by its new parent company, Kuka now wants to push into the consumer robotics market.

Kuka CEO Till Reuter acknowledged that the change is being driven by Midea. The latter company makes a wide range of products for the smart home market, including washing machines, ovens, and fridges. Midea hope to leverage Kuka’s expertise in the automation field to create complex robot assistants, especially in the area of elderly assistance. Many countries like the United States and Japan are facing the well-reported challenge of an aging population—hence the appeal of these robots for caregiving purposes.

The collaborative robot space is growing and by 2025 is expected to reach 34% of all industrial robots sold. That is a large increase, especially if you compare it to only the 3% sold in 2016. The cheaper price points, smarter systems (which include sensors for collision detection), and ease of programming are selling points for the robots. By 2025 the market is projected to increase in value up to $33.8 billion for industrial robots, with cobots comprising $11.2 billion of that.

The smart home market is growing right alongside with the cobot market. Some 80 million smart devices were delivered worldwide in 2016, and a recent survey conducted by Wakefield Research showed that 86% of Millennials and 65% of Baby Boomers would want a home with smart technology built in.

I personally would love the idea of smart-powered home. I currently utilize two iDevice switches to control my air conditioner units throughout the summer. They connect to my Apple TV and Wi-Fi network, which allows me to remotely control and automate their on/off schedule from my iPhone.

Still, as much as I would love more of this kind of home tech, I’m not sure how having a robotic arm in the home would help. Kuka would need to design an entire new product—one, perhaps, that could reach items on a shelf, or pick up a couch for cleaning underneath. I’m interested in seeing what the company develops, but for now, smart home automation is best directed toward controlling our electronics—not in manual labor.

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