Investing in the Robot Revolution: Part 2

February 06, 2013

From manufacturing to services, a step change in automation is underway. Investors will want to get a share of a market that could be worth $400 billion by 2020 but, more than ever, they will need to be well advised.

Like the original industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the second age of mass industrialization in the twentieth, the current automation revolution is being driven by several convergent developments. Advances in computing are occurring at such a rate that computers with the equivalent processing and memory capabilities of human beings could be developed within the next quarter century. Evolving alongside this surge in computing power are new processes, such as three-dimensional printing, and new technology, like robots that can sense when something is getting in the way and stop. Together, these advances have the power to transform industries and open up significant opportunities for investors.

In our last blog, we looked at how robotics could transform everything from driving to surgery. But 3D printing could have ramifications at least as big. This revolutionary process allows prototypes, components and—ultimately—finished products to be designed on a computer and then “printed” in a machine that deposits material layer by layer to create an immediately useable article. The technology would allow individually tailored products to be as easily and cheaply made as mass-produced goods, and instantly available and ready to use exactly where they are needed.

These technological breakthroughs are all happening as rapid industrial growth in developing countries is starting to drive up the low labor costs that have propelled Asian and Latin American economies. Populations are ageing more rapidly—and not just in developed countries. China must soon confront the implications of its one-child policy on economic growth. Fewer and more expensive economically active members of the population will make labor-intensive manufacturing increasingly less economical. And in many emerging economies, the penetration of robots in industrial sectors is far behind developed markets (Display).

Meanwhile, the corporate sector is hungry for new sources of revenue. Years of high profits and limited opportunities for investing them have left companies flush with cash. In a world of low interest rates, where consumers use savings to reduce debts rather than spend, we expect the prospective returns from automation to look like an increasingly attractive way of investing this spare capital.

As a result, we forecast a step change in the automation market over the next few years. Currently worth around $100 billion, we expect it to quadruple by 2020, putting it on a par with the market for e-commerce. But we don’t expect this development to be even. Some companies will be the Apples and Googles of automation; others are destined to be the Kodaks—clinging for too long to a technology like photographic film, long after it has been left behind by the world. That’s why it will be more important than ever for investors to have well-resourced, well-researched and wise counsel at their backs before investing in this brave new world of technology.

The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AllianceBernstein portfolio-management teams.

Catherine Wood is Chief Investment Officer—Thematic Portfolios and Michael Shavel is Research Associate--Thematic Portfolios, both at AllianceBernstein.

Investing in the Robot Revolution: Part 2
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