By applying additive manufacturing to the advancement of soft robotics, we may be able to automate processes that today are unthinkable to be handled by machines. With the right strategy in place, ABB could lead this change and develop technology that has the potential to disrupt how we apply robotics and automation in our lives. However, finding the balance between highly specialized technology and a commercially viable product that can achieve scale is a challenging endeavor.
Additive Manufacturing, or 3D printing, is the process of joining materials to create objects, usually layer by layer, from 3D model data, as opposed to traditional subtractive manufacturing methods.  It is especially successful in areas that require high degrees of customization or design precision across industries, i.e. innovative, highly complex products.  
One of the leading players focusing on additive manufacturing today is ABB Group. Founded in 1883 and headquartered in Zurich, it is one of the largest electrical engineering manufacturers globally. Almost half of ABB’s operating profits come from its Robotics and Industrial Automation divisions. 
In the past decades, Industrial Robots have changed the manufacturing process of a vast range of industries. However, due to certain limitations, existing robotics technology has not yet reached a number of high-potential industries.  While a human arm can perform the most delicate, coordinated movements – like gently picking up a toddler or performing brain surgery – robotic arms are often rigid and limited in the fluidity of movements, which can be hindering in more advanced, complex applications.  For instance, traditional underwater robots can explore marine life beyond human reach, but cannot interact with or collect sensitive, soft-bodied sea organisms without damaging them, thus limiting the opportunities of scientific research in this field. 
A potential solution to this issue is soft robotics, enabled by multi-material additive manufacturing. 3D Printing can be leveraged to create complex, soft structures with highly sensitive sensors, providing robotics with advanced dexterity and flexibility.  Such technology could be used for e.g., bio-medical procedures, applications in warehouse and distribution, or the food and beverage industry. As a leader in robotics, ABB is well positioned for a leading role in this technology. To successfully apply soft robotics to a broader range of industries, the organization will need to resolve the issue of balancing highly specialized technology with sufficient scale to make it commercially viable.
ABB already focuses intensively on additive manufacturing. Their dedicated researchers explore benefits in e.g., design simplification or light weight design. In 2016, ABB revealed the first 3D printed office building, combining futuristic design with improved energy efficiency (Figure 1). The 3D printer used measured 120x20x40 feet and constructed the building in only two weeks.  Internally, rapid prototyping through additive manufacturing is already replacing traditional production methods, shortening the product development cycle from several weeks to only a few days. 
Figure 1 – ABB’s 3D printed ‘Office of the Future’ in Dubai, Source: ABB company website
Within the soft robotics space, ABB is beginning to explore potential applications by collaborating with startups and universities. The most relevant example is a partnership between ABB Technology Ventures and the startup “Soft Robotics”, a spin-off from the Whitesides Group at Harvard University which develops new designs for robots inspired by octopuses (Figure 2).  
Figure 2 – The octobot, an entirely soft robot, Source: Wyss Institute Harvard
Forward-looking, to successfully address the challenge of developing innovative, at-scale soft robotics for a broad range of industries, I would recommend ABB to dedicate more in-house research resources to this field. By investing in its own R&D, ABB will become a more valuable partner to research institutes and startups, thus complementing its current partnership approach to 3D printing.
Furthermore, ABB should focus on building relationships to target groups with “extreme applications” such as marine research to sharpen its understanding of success factors, challenges, and opportunities in new fields. As with many innovations at an early stage, it may still be unclear who the dominating players and technologies will be. Therefore, ABB should continuously explore how it can leverage start-up relationships and venture investments to explore a wide range of innovations.
Given soft robotics is a relatively new technology, there are many open questions that are critical for ABB to address. For instance, the organization will need to develop a strategy on how to best understand the needs of potential new target markets that can be approached with soft robotics, and how to best pursue this opportunity commercially: Is the best strategy to initially focus efforts on one highly specialized niche application, similar to IBM’s approach with Watson?  Or should ABB aim to develop a solution that addresses a broader range of applications across industries, foremost focusing on scale and cost efficiency? What do we think is realistic in the near future, and what will remain a vision for another decade? (797 words)
 – Digital Capability Center, McKinsey & Company
 – Lisa Harouni (2012), “A primer on 3D printing” (TED Talk)
 – Dennis Spaeth, “3D Printing is Changing the Face of Multiple Industries”
 – ABB Company Website
 Steve Pillsbury et al (2018), pwc report, “Robot-ready: Adopting a new generation of industrial robots”
 – Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard in Science News, “Submarines now have soft, robotic arms” (Link)
 Brennan T. Phillips et al (2018) “A Dexterous, Glove-Based Teleoperable Low-Power Soft Robotic Arm for Delicate Deep-Sea Biological Exploration” (Link)
 Robison, B. H. (2004), Deep pelagic biology, “Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology” 300 (1), 253–272
 Rus, D. & Tolley (2015), M. T. Design, “Fabrication and Control of Soft Robots”, in Nature 521(7553), 467–475
 Bruyas, A. et al (2015) “Toward unibody robotic structures with integrated functions using multimaterial additive manufacturing: case study of an MRI-compatible interventional device”, in IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems
 Wang, Y., and Lee, K. (2017) “3D-printed semi-soft mechanisms inspired by origami twisted tower”, in NASA/ESA Conference on Adaptive Hardware and Systems
 Company video – Youtube: ABB Robotics, Functional Prototypes for the YuMi robot – Ultimaker: 3D Printing Story (Link)
 Rothemund P. (2018) “A Soft, Bistable Valve for Autonomous Control of Soft Actuators”, Whitesides.G.M. and Science Robotics
 Leah Burrows, SEAS Communications, (2016) “The first autonomous, entirely soft robot”
 D. A. Ferrucci (2012), “Introduction to “This is Watson”, in IBM Journal of Research and Development, vol. 56, no. 3.4