As technology improves, robots are playing an increasingly important part in our economy. Robots are now able to perform complicated tasks such as surgery, military reconnaissance, and combat, and they are even replacing human labor in manufacturing plants at a faster rate than ever before. With so much promise surrounding the robotics field recently, we'll look at how robots are transforming the areas of auto manufacturing and healthcare at a breakneck pace today.
The business of making cars
No industry has changed more over the past 100 years because of robots than the auto manufacturing business. In fact, the auto industry accounted for nearly 40% of worldwide robot sales last year, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Today, industrial robots work alongside humans on hundreds of automobile assembly lines around the world. These autonomous machines help companies save time and money by automating tasks like welding, foundry, and laser applications.
In a National Geographic documentary, over 500 robots work tirelessly to crank out more than 1,000 cars per day at one of Hyundai Motor's manufacturing plants in Alabama. Robots have become key to the auto industry because they make the process of producing cars faster, safer, and more efficient. Thanks to robots, automakers from Hyundai to BMW and Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) are able to build multiple vehicle models on a single assembly line. That's because industrial grade robots like those made by Kuka are capable of executing multiple tasks including welding, bolting, or transporting parts. In turn, this multitasking helps auto companies significantly increase production times.
Tesla recently added robots to its new production line, and management expects the new bots to help boost the company's production by as much as 55% to more than 35,000 vehicles this year. While that might not seem like a lot compared to Hyundai, it's a feat that wouldn't be possible without advanced robotics.
BMW, meanwhile, is putting lightweight robots to work alongside human workers on its assembly line at its plant in Spartanburg in the U.S. In the past, industrial robots were confined to cages in order to protect workers from potential injuries. Today, BMW uses robots made by Universal Robots, a company based in Denmark, to fit doors with sound and moisture insulation.
Thanks to its "collaborative" bots, Universal Robots has seen its sales surge more than 40-fold since 2010, according to the Financial Times. Now that the auto industry has proven robots can work collaboratively with human workers, this creates a massive opportunity for service bots in other fields, such as healthcare.
Automatons in healthcare
Robotics are revolutionizing the healthcare industry in ways once relegated to science fiction. Automatons like the da Vinci Surgical System by Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG) have already changed the operating room by enabling surgeons to operate on patients using robotic arms. But the future of robotics in healthcare is increasingly becoming more service-based. Think delivery bots in hospitals or remote access robots capable of administering elderly care.
The International Federation of Robotics believes that by 2016, robots will have made valuable inroads into service industries like healthcare, where "an aging population will require support services, for which human care givers will be too few in number to provide." iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) is already on this path thanks to its RP-VITA, or Remote Presence Virtual + Independent Telemedicine Assistant. This portable bot enables doctors to diagnose patients remotely without having to physically be in the room with them.
iRobot teamed up with InTouch Health to create the RP-VITA, and the duo got FDA approval for its telemedicine bots in 2012. This was a smart move for iRobot considering the global market for telepresence robots is expected to top $13 billion by 2017, according to ABI Research. The company leases its RP-Vita system to hospitals and healthcare professionals for around $5,000 per month, according to a report from CBS.
We are still in the early stages of service robots in the healthcare space, but iRobot seems to be a key player in this emerging space, particularly as its RP-VITA tech is the first to use autonomous navigation technology. In fact, only 1,000 hospitals in the U.S. and abroad were using InTouch telemedicine robots as of November 2013. The American Telemedicine Association reports that more than half of all U.S. hospitals are now using telemedicine devices like those made by iRobot.
In addition to telemedicine devices, there are also robots in hospitals today that carry out other services such as safely transporting controlled substances or medicines to different areas of the hospital. The bottom line is this: Intelligent hospital systems are here to stay. The presence of robots in healthcare will only grow in the years ahead, as robotics make it easier, faster and safer for doctors and health professionals to diagnose and administer care to patients worldwide.
A future of machines
Robots have been transforming the automotive industry for decades now, but only recently are they making inroads into other industries such as healthcare and services. This trend will only grow in the years to come as robotics technology continues to improve at a breakneck pace.
Tamara Rutter owns shares of iRobot and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool recommends BMW, Intuitive Surgical, iRobot, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Intuitive Surgical and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.