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Four Factors Critical to the Success of Robotics
Robotics has all the hallmarks of a technology brimming with transformational potential. But potentially transformational technologies frequently end up fizzling (remember Segway?). How can you tell whether something like robotics warrants the hype?
Looking back at successful and failed transformations suggests watching four critical factors.
- Make it easier for people to do what they are trying to get done.
While the iPad feels like an overnight success, its roots trace back to the Newton Personal Digital Assistant Apple introduced in the 1990s. The Newton was ahead of its time, requiring users to modify their behavior and prioritize things that historically hadn't mattered to them. On the other hand, the iPad radically simplified mobile computing. The recent rise of robots that increase worker productivity - rather than simply seeking to displace workers - is a promising sign.
- Start with nonconsumption.
Transformational technologies are rarely perfect. Rather, they offer new benefits, but have some initial limitations. Success comes from finding a "foothold market" that values the benefits and doesn't care about the limitations. For example, a scientist at Bell Labs developed the transistor in the late 1940s. It was small, rugged, and didn't give off heat. It wasn't as powerful as vacuum tubes, however. Efforts to force transistors into televisions and floor standing radios struggled. The first commercial application for transistors was actually a hearing aid, followed by Sony's transistor radios. Those markets were perfect homes for imperfect solutions. It is no surprise that consumer robotics have emerged in simple applications like iRobot's Roomba household cleaner. Nailing simple starting points increases long-term potential.
- Feature complementary business models.
Transformation rarely comes purely from technology. Rather, it comes when technology is encased in an enabling business model. The Internet didn't have transformational impact until companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook leveraged the Internet to develop new ways to create, capture, and deliver value. This is one area to watch for robotics - the more robotics companies enable new business models, the greater the chance of transformational impact.
- Embrace emergent strategy.
The right business strategy for a transformational technology is rarely clear at the outset. Rather, it emerges from a process of trial-and-error experimentation. Paradoxically, the odds of successful transformation can go down as investment goes up. Higher up-front investment often leads to locking in to a particular strategy. When the weaknesses in the strategy appear - and they always do - a singular "big bet" makes course correction difficult. Motorola's Iridium effort, a costly failed early attempt to build a constellation of cellular satellites, is a painful reminder of this lesson. While certainly there have been significant investments in robotics, the dispersion of that investment across a number of established and start-up companies bodes well for the emergence of transformational solutions.
In March of this year, Amazon.com paid close to $800 million for Kiva Systems, a company whose robotic technology streamlines warehouse logistics. That's a positive sign for the transformational impact of robotics, as it demonstrates robotics expanding beyond assembly lines. The more companies follow the four principles detailed above, the more the transformational potential of robotics will be realized.
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