Monday, July 27, 2015

iRobots – will household robotics get swept away?



     If we research industries of disruptive technologies, we don’t have to look far to find the 2013 McKinsey Global Institute’s report.  Here, twelve potentially economically disruptive technologies include mobile internet, automation of knowledge work, the internet of things, cloud technologies, advanced robotics, autonomous and near-autonomous vehicles, next generation genomics, energy storage, 3d printing, advanced materials, advanced oil and gas exploration and recovery, and renewable energy. [1] If we dive a more into advanced robotics we see a surge of interest over the last ten years.  One only needs to look at iRobot and its infamous Roomba, to see if this emerging field and company is considered among one of the best in the world?  Will it be one to fail due to good management in a disruptive innovation?   
     iRobot currently serves three technology solution markets - home maintenance market, defense & security and emerging video collaboration markets.  iRobot found its signature product through the Roomba.  A vacuum cleaner that removes dirt, dust, pet hair and other debris all on its own. Using robotic technology and just under $400 ($399.99),  Roomba’s claim to fame is it vacuums every section of your floor multiple times, getting under and around furniture and along wall edges, detecting dirt, avoiding stairs and navigating through loose wires to clean more of a room.  These household cleaning devices have expanded to include the Scooba (floor scrubbing), Braava (floor mopping), Mirra (pool cleaning) and the Looj (gutter cleaning.)  
     IRobot has also played a significant role in Defense & Security with SUGV, FirstLook, PackBot, and Kobra. These PackBots hunt IEDs in wartime countries like Afghanistan and Iraq and are even deployed in events like the Boston Marathon bombings manhunt and preparations for the WorldCup.  However, with Department of Defense (DOD) contracts drying up with the decline of war, limitations on this portion of the business come in waves.  The newest market for iRobot is the emerging video collaboration, there products Ava 500 and RP-VITA are targeted toward remote healthcare via mobile video technology.
     This “fast history” as it is called by our article Why Good Companies Fail to Thrive in Fast-Moving Industries continues to drive and in some case push this disruptive technology into new markets to become viable.  If we examine iRobot against the principles of disruptive innovation, we may get a glimpse into whether the diversity and improved product performance can transition this innovation into a sustainable technology. 
     The innovator’s Dilemma shows us that disruptive innovations have worse product performance (at least at the beginning) in comparison to other features new customers value about that product.  If we examine the vacuum industry, we see a rocky start for iRobot’s Roomba.  With customer complaints, high investment and maintenance cost, and less than stellar performance.  However, slowly the organization built a loyal following, even with some customers naming their iRobots and referring to them as pets or parts of the family.  Although iRobot continues to gain its market share of the vacuum industry it still owns only a small percentage of the overall market.  In 2011, it reported owning 14.6% of the market and now in 2014, a 20% share of the over $1.4 billion business. [2]
     If we test the first principal of disruptive innovation, we perceive a dependency on customers and investors for resources.  We see the clear connection of the DOD dictating spending for this investment pattern and the decrease in demand for the PackBot products.  We also see the need to diversify this disruptive technology to expand products and possible interest by customers and investors.  iRobot is banking on a shortage of skilled and specialty healthcare needs to demonstrate a need for their emerging video collaboration technology as part of their mobile robotics.
In principal two, small markets don’t solve the growth needs of large companies. iRobot has an opportunity to further develop the market of household robotics.  In many ways it is not competing with traditional vacuums rather it is competing with emerging markets of household robotics.  In their 2014 investor presentation, they estimate a capitalization on 65-85% of the robotic vacuum market worldwide.  If they are going to conquer principle two they will need an organization that can transform the current vacuum business and make current devices obsolete.  The size of their organization will need to match the size of the target market.  Otherwise, they will exhaust the market and become weaker, hence their need to emerge in other markets of growth like healthcare.  Options and alternatives will be critical to the success of small, useful robotics to do everyday tasks in innovative and new ways. 
     iRobot is just starting to have the ability to analyze markets of household robotics.  In principle three we know with emerging technologies sound market research and good planning are the cornerstones of good management.  Here is where iRobot shows its adaptability and versatility.  Transforming their product into what is needed at the time and standing the test of most recent, fast time and changing product needs.
     Principle four has us examine process and values of the organization during prioritization decisions. In recent years, iRobot laid off over 124 people and overall revenues decreased by 6% in 2012 to $436 million, even though consumer sales grew by 28%.   With Roomba’s rapid growth, iRobot has invested millions of dollars to develop its new products with their disruptive advancement: the RP-VITA, the first remote-presence robot approved for use in hospitals.[3]  It looks like iRobot is becoming successful at adapting this disruptive technology and capable of successfully addressing new problems with the mobile robotic innovations. 
     Lastly, principle five is where iRobot will need to continue to invest its marketing efforts.  Their technology supply may not equal the market demand.  Established products like the vacuum cleaner are a hard competition when the biggest advantage of the iRobot is convenience.  They still need to capitalize and position themselves to transform their functionality to reliability and find a way to be competitive in price.
     It will be interesting to watch this disruptive technology and the management of iRobot.  Will they be able to focus adequate resources on their disruptive technologies and additionally focus on the management of their diverse businesses and markets?  Will they be able to stand the test of time, transform the household device business and become a sustainable technology? Or will they be swept away? 
[1] 2013 McKinsey Global Institute Disruptive technologies:  MGI_Disruptive_technologies_Executive_summary_May2013.pdf
[2] iRobot Investor Presentation:   Jefferies 2015 Global Consumer Conference.pdf
[3] Invasion of The Machines: iRobot Hunts Bombs, Cleans Floors, Now Wants To Heal You. Forbes 5/22/2013  http://www.forbes.com/sites/briansolomon/2013/05/22/invasion-of-the-machines-irobot-hunts-bombs-cleans-floors-now-wants-to-heal-you/

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.