For many in the robotics community the current coronavirus pandemic is the best of times and the worst of times. Our industry is seeing huge interest as people around the world come to appreciate the power and potential of robotic solutions in overcoming current and emerging challenges. But, at the same time, the economic slow-down, the impact of the virus and the demands of social distancing are putting huge stress on many of the innovative businesses that are driving the industry.
The last couple of years has seen an explosion in companies, primarily small, disruptive start-ups, coming together to create a vibrant network of rapidly developing supply chains and collaborations. This shift from the monolithic silos that characterised robotics only a few years ago promises to deliver better, more cost-effective robots faster for use in a plethora of scenarios. The ability of these emerging leaders to innovate and create solutions quickly can be seen in the many responses to the current crisis.
The future for robotics looks strong but in the short-term robotics start-ups are in a really difficult position. By definition robots are physical. This is what makes them such a powerful technology as they have the ability to literally have a direct impact on the real world. But it also means that the nature of our business does not lend itself well to working from home. Development requires real-world testing and it is difficult for teams to do this whilst maintaining social distance. Worse, for many, revenue is intrinsically linked to these physical proofs of capability.
We are fortunate at SLAMcore in that we have a strong financial foundation with plenty of runway and, as a software firm, we are better able to work remotely than many. But, as part of a broad ecosystem, I can see the challenges that others are facing and understand the fragility of the entire industry even as we stand on the cusp of huge growth and value.
The only thing we can say with any certainty at the moment is that this will pass. When it does, I expect a surge in interest from companies looking to use robots; investors looking to deploy capital in this space; and, a general acceptance from the public that robots are a force for good. But our industry is a delicate ecosystem at a crucial and fragile point as it matures from silos to supply chains. We need as many of us to make it through to the other side as possible and not just become a graveyard for big tech companies to come in and pick the bones.
I can see four practical steps that those who would look to benefit from the industry’s strength and growth should take now to help nurture it through the current storm.
Invest in proofs of concept now. Many multinationals have been considering the role of robotics in helping to transform their business. Now is the time to sign off on proof of concept trials and prepare for the new normal once the current crisis fades. Pay upfront and start work immediately on the elements that can be done remotely so that physical trials can be ready for when restrictions are lifted.
Collaborate to build your stack. Don’t try and do everything yourself. Robotics start-ups that did secure significant investment in the good times can support the ecosystem whilst improving quality, capability and time to market for their products. Identify those parts of the stack that are not core and where outside expertise could add value. Create meaningful projects that help them to help you.
Co-create the hardware platforms of the future. Established hardware companies can ensure they are part of the coming robotics boom by supporting the start-ups with the essential knowledge and skills to deliver it. Invest in their future by paying these innovators to develop on your platforms. I assure you, the companies you support will not forget.
Keep the taps on. We are fortunate, as a company and as an industry, that VC firms have spotted the opportunity and the promise of robotics. Investments have been made, but they need to be followed up. Don’t close your door to robotics deals but continue to invest in those companies rapidly creating the solutions that will help solve this crisis, and the next.
I’m proud that SLAMcore is part of this great industry at this pivotal time. We all believe that robots are a significant force for good, and that now more than ever, people are recognising the huge value we can add as an industry. We are very well positioned to weather this storm, and to deliver this promising future, but our success is reliant on a vibrant and competitive robotics ecosystem. Let’s all do everything we can to make sure that our industry thrives.