Robot Lull?

IREX Art 001

[Robot art at IREX 2011]

It's almost a month since IREX 2011 wrapped up. Going back over my notes, photos, and videos from what is usually the high point of the robotics calendar, I have to say that the show this year was a bit lackluster.  There were a few new robots and applications that surfaced, but not near as many as we've seen in previous years.

Some companies were noticeable by their absence. Either they have been absorbed into other robotics and automation companies, or they couldn't afford to participate. It could also be that they felt that the show isn't as relevant to their target customers as it has been in the past. Whatever their reasons, it isn't a good sign, and seems to indicate that the industry is in a lull, waiting for some new breakthrough or resurgence in investment capital.

The companies that did participate were, by and large, demonstrating slightly enhanced models of the same robots and technology that they've been promoting for several years, in some cases for almost a decade. I will grant that there has been some incremental improvement, but not enough to light a fire under the market and stimulate exciting new growth.

The high point for IREX appears to have been in 2007 when the energy that filled the exhibition center was palpable, almost like the ionized air right after a lightening storm. Two years later, IREX 2009, was struggling in the aftermath of the Lehman Shock, as it's known here in Japan. Attendance and exhibitors were down considerable, though the organizers made a strong attempt to keep up appearances by installing false walls blocking off exhibit booths that were unsold.

This year, IREX 2011, I was surprised to find quite a few small companies with limited financial resources, occupying multiple booths. In better years there is no way that companies of that size would have had the budget to show off their products in two or three distinct, and physically separate, booths at the show. Yet, there they were this year, doing a great job of marketing. I'm very happy for the companies that were able to do that. At the same time, it's a sign that booths weren't commanding the high prices they have in the past.

Hopefully, it's a temporary condition and one that will be just a memory by the time that IREX 2013 rolls around. There are some signs of life in the industry, and some promising applications emerging. Cloud robotics is going to make a major impact on the industry, manufacturing, and our overall quality of life, in the near future. It's still too early to predict when we'll start seeing measurable results, but my guess is that it will be within years, not decades.


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