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The Robotics Revolution (and Who to Watch Closely)

1 | By Michael A. Robinson

You may not live or work with any robots today… but you will soon.

The robotics market is about to explode.

I predict that, in the next few years, we will see swarms of robots entering the workplace. Of course, we’ve had bots working in factories for years now. But as they get both cheaper and smarter, we will find lots of new jobs for them to do. And they’ll do those jobs better and better.

Robots of all sizes are already capable of doing some very complex tasks: They can perform surgery, hair transplants, and even climb inside the human body – through the mouth – to “eat” stomach cancers.

To understand the scale of the robotics revolution, just look at what’s happening in China.

Cheap labor in that nation not only stole U.S. jobs, it vaulted China to the front ranks of fast-growing markets. But now robots are invading Chinese factories in a big way. Take the case of Foxconn International Holdings Ltd., which is based in Taiwan and makes electronic components and other goods for big computer firms (it supplies parts for the iPad, iPhone, Xbox, and Kindle).

Well, Foxconn announced it plans to buy enough robots to replace roughly half the firm’s 1.2 million workers in China. This is the largest robotics rollout in the history.

The trade group the International Federation of Robotics says there are about one million industrial robots now in use around the world. So, based on Foxconn’s rollout alone – one company in one country – we know that figure is set to more than double by the end of the decade.

The robotics revolution is here.

So what’s a clever tech investor to do?

Let’s dig into the latest activities of one visionary robotics expert who’s so engrossed in the field, he once told a reporter he winced when RoboCop went “belly up”…

The Founder of iRobot Has Big Plans for the Future

Rodney Brooks is the co-founder of pioneering iRobot Corp. (NASDAQ:IRBT), which you almost certainly know as the maker of the Roomba® vacuum cleaning robot.

And he is a central figure in the Era of Radical Change.

Today iRobot is easily the most well-known U.S. robotics firm. It has a $685 million market cap and sells products to both consumers and U.S. defense forces. Besides the Roomba, its line of home-cleaning robots is rounded out with a floor washer, pool clearer, and gutter clearer. iRobot has also delivered 4,500 military robots that have successfully performed dangerous search, recon, and bomb-disposal missions.

By the way, iRobot announced a change in structure caused in no small part by U.S. defense spending cuts. The firm has added a third unit that will focus on health care, retail, and security.

But no matter. Brooks is long gone from iRobot.

He left the company he helped found – and a professor of robotics position at MIT – to form Heartland Robotics in 2008. The Boston startup is meant, he said, to produce a range of machines that will serve as the equivalent of the PC in robotics.

He still ranks as one of the field’s top experts… but he has had very little to say in public for the past three years.

Check this out for irony.

His self-imposed quiet period caused a recent round of buzz about his new company. It all stemmed from a piece a couple weeks ago that the Economist magazine ran about the growing use of robots in factories. The article merely quoted Brooks in passing. But it made the point that Brooks’ “lips are sealed” about just what kind of robots Heartland is building.

Next thing you know, several news stories about Brooks started popping up on the Web and newsfeeds, reminding folks that he is the main force behind Heartland.

For competitive and other reasons, Brooks really doesn’t want to disclose just how and when Heartland will enter the robotics market.

Here’s what we do know…

“Heartland Robotics will change the definition of how and where robots can be used, dramatically expanding the robot marketplace,” Brooks says in a message posted on his new firm’s website. “Our robots will be intuitive to use, intelligent, and highly flexible. They’ll be easy to buy, train, and deploy and will be unbelievably inexpensive.”

From those words, I glean two things: Brooks expects his new company to cause quite a stir… and make some serious coin. Otherwise, why would he have resigned from iRobot a few years back? And why would he have left his prestigious teaching position at MIT? You just don’t walk away from one of the world’s greatest schools unless you feel you see a big score in the making.

Brooks has a lot riding on Heartland, where he serves as chairman and chief technology officer.

And investors are betting that Brooks will come up with something. Something big.

To date, Heartland Robotics has raised more than $25 million in venture funding. That includes money from Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN). Bezos knows better than anyone how valuable robots can be performing work in factories and warehouses. You may recall that Amazon paid $775 million to buy Kiva Systems Inc. back in March. Kiva makes robots that do shipping jobs. These bots can cost several million dollars each.

For now, Brooks and Heartland remain on the sidelines, waiting for the right time to pounce.

Investors will get a better idea of when that might be the next time Heartland discloses news that it has received more venture funding. That will give us a better look at how much “the smart money” thinks Heartland is worth and when it might have an IPO.

I’m watching this very closely. I’ll be in touch with any developments as soon as they arise.

Here’s what’s interesting to me about the robotics revolution…

Rodney Brooks says there’s more at stake here than just money. He believes that robots can help save high-value U.S. jobs.

This is just what I’m talking about when I say that high-tech can rescue America and restore it to its previous glory, as a respected world leader. Despite its many problems, the U.S. remains the place to be for inventors and entrepreneurs.

Brooks himself is a native of Australia who moved Silicon Valley to make his “fame and fortune” right here in America. He is bullish about both the growing role of robots and America’s ability to regain its footing.

On that note, let me share a statement from Heartland’s website. It summarizes Brooks’ philosophy. And it’s a classic…

“Robots will reinvigorate industry and inject new life into the economy. Making businesses more competitive. Keeping jobs from moving overseas. Demonstrating the power of American ingenuity.”

We’ll be watching.

Michael

One Response to The Robotics Revolution (and Who to Watch Closely)

  1. Celeste says:

    I can’t imagine how Brooks thinks robots might keep jobs from moving overseas. Not that I’m negative about robots, but if production costs are lower elsewhere, I believe the robots will eventually be made elsewhere. And robots themselves will replace human workers more and more. Sure, Heartland might make money. But jobs? Not many, not in the US.

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