IRobot’s New Floor-Cleaning Bot a Key to Company’s Future
IRobot has built a pretty large business on the gee-whiz proposition of letting robotic vacuum cleaners tidy up around the house. But the company won’t get truly huge until home cleaning robots are as commonplace as dishwashers or sonic toothbrushes.
That’s a big part of the thinking behind the company’s introduction of a new robot, the latest in its Scooba line that cleans hard floors.
You can check out the iRobot online store or the early reviews for all of the bells, whistles, and specs you might ever want—the new, $599 Scooba 450 sweeps up dirt, then “pre-soaks” the floors before scrubbing them and finally squeegeeing them dry.
Like its original carpet-cleaning brother, the Roomba, this robot pilots itself around the house automatically, cleaning around furniture and cabinets and whatnot.
It’s a refreshingly ready-to-sell product amid all the “coming later this year” marketing rollouts that typically happen during the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And for iRobot, this little number is probably crucial to the company’s future growth.
Founded more than 20 years ago by MIT robotics experts, Bedford, MA-based iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) is considered the godfather of consumer robotics companies. It’s now sold more than 10 million robots worldwide, and the biggest seller has long been the vacuuming Roomba.
It’s a high-end product, not seen on most people’s floors. But the Roomba has still had an impact on the public imagination—maybe you’ve heard of DJ Roomba—since it’s seen as ushering in a long-promised era of intelligent machine homemakers.
IRobot reported about $124.5 million in revenue in its most recent quarterly results, down slightly from the year before—an increase in the company’s dominant home robot category made up for a drop in government and security robot sales. But it earned just $7.8 million for the quarter, a big drop from about $15.2 million from the year before, due mostly to increased R&D and marketing costs.
Digging into the financials a little further shows where the money really comes from: overseas. Home robots accounted for about $111 million of the company’s third-quarter sales, and international sales accounted for 68 percent of that revenue.
International home robot sales also grew 19 percent over the previous year, more than double the growth rate in the U.S., with Japan being noted as a particularly important customer.
IRobot doesn’t break out sales by product line in its financial results, but only two of the company’s products—Roomba and the floor-mopping Braava, the product of an acquired former competitor—get more than a casual mention in the company’s quarterly results.
The company’s security and military robots do bring in a bit of money on the side, while its next realm of hoped-for growth—“telepresence” video-conferencing bots—is not expected to affect the balance sheet in any meaningful way for a couple of years at least.
That means it’s down to home-maintenance robots to really make a big difference in the near future, from the floor-cleaners to newer ideas like the pool-cleaning and gutter-clearing robots already being sold.
In a news release, iRobot said growing from 10 million robots sold to 100 million will depend on the company’s ability to “reinvent home cleaning and go beyond vacuuming.” That requires challenging name brands like Samsung and Dyson, and “getting mainstream America, Europe and Asia to embrace the use of robots to clean their homes and redefining how we clean.”
If that vision comes through, you can probably expect to see more commercials for nifty little household helpers in the near future, and maybe even a few more robots zipping around the floor when you visit someone’s house—especially if you’re visiting friends in Japan.
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