At the recent A3 Business Forum — held in conjunction with the Robotics Industries Association, or RIA, the Automated Imaging Association, or AIA, and the Motion Control & Motor Association, or MCMA, I got the chance to interview some robotics experts about the current state of technology.
Nigel Smith, President and CEO, and Ryan Guthrie, Executive VP of TM Robotics Inc. took time out of their days to expound on the current state and future of robotics — including cobots, medical robotics, consumer-grade robots, and innovations in industrial robotics as well. Here’s the final installment of Q&As from that interview.
Eitel • Design World: How bad is today’s robotic programming for newbies?
Guthrie • TM Robotics: Just reconsider 4-axis SCARAs. Engineers quickly see these aren’t that bad to program. So they grow accustomed to 4-axis SCARAs, and then we introduce them to more advanced technologies.
As the saying goes, learn to walk before you run. Then there are better odds that this engineer will remain a customer or repeat buyer. They start thinking, “Actually, now that we know the capabilities of robots, how can we apply them in other elements?”
In fact, disruptive technologies advance all industries, including robotics, and we often take what we’ve learned and apply it to other elements in our business.
Smith • TM Robotics: Our line of robots is setup to help customers advance into that next level. They start with a SCARA or a simple two or 3-axis system. Then we go up to SCARAs or 6-axis offerings, introducing them into that. We’ve got some key accounts that started with a simple robot, and now they’re buying a dozen or two dozen robots a year. One uses a whole array of our robots to make fabrications.
Eitel • Design World: What is a typical customer in that regard for you? Is it someone like a plant manager, someone who’s looking to update, or is this new builds or new setups?
Guthrie • TM Robotics: We started with one customer that supplies parts to the automotive market. Historically, when they started making new product, they’d built bespoke machinery to do it — so if they were assembling product, they would have a machine dedicated to doing just that. They would know that they need, say, ten millimeters of travel for one particular movement. They’d have a linear actuator here and a pneumatic actuator there. They’d design specifically for that element.
So when we starting chatting with their engineering team, we found it was taking 6 to eight months to design a machine that was only going to get used for 18 months or so. Then they were starting all over to match the new design of the automotive manufacturer.
Eitel • Design World: So in this instance, you worked with the engineering team to find a better approach?
Smith • TM Robotics: Actually, the engineering-management team came to us to help them build some bespoke machinery. But instead, we proposed that they make the same capital investment in robotics they were already planning to make — but pick robotics that wouldn’t force them change their whole line in another year and a half … and instead would let them just change end-of-arm tooling. They thought about it and agreed.
Now, instead of having a massive capital investment every 18 months, they made their initial capital investment (which they’ve since paid off) and now just retool for a fraction of the cost. Profits are up and now they can increase their scalability and do bigger projects — and more projects. Now, they’re becoming more profitable because instead of redesigning the wheel every time, they’re putting new rims on it.
Smith • TM Robotics: Obviously, the general manager is very happy because they’ve saved a lot of cost. Those are the kind of customers we like to introduce to robotics — and teach about how it keeps manufacturing efficient and cost effective.
Guthrie • TM Robotics: So that’s really where we focus our design work — although collaborative and medical robots are proliferating.
Smith • TM Robotics: It’s true. Collaborative has grown very quickly in the States, less so in Europe. Industry has embraced that technology, which has been good for the general robot industry as a whole — as more engineers than ever are using and becoming comfortable with robots.
Eitel • Design World: Just one last question about robot operating system (ROS) software. Even large industrial-robotics companies have embraced ROS connectivity with modules and feedback devices. What are your thoughts on this?
Guthrie • TM Robotics: ROS is working to entice the next generation of engineers. As a result, students entering the industry now are accustomed to open platforms because of many of the consumer and hobby products out there today that are open source. Only when these students get into the industry do they realize that there isn’t currently that same open-use mentality in the automation industry. Instead, every company has its own proprietary software — because software is itself a revenue stream. Industrial-equipment manufacturers also view proprietary software as a way to protect intellectual property. But as that next generation of engineers join the industry, they’ll say, “Hang on a second … we don’t think of programming this way … and we want open code.”
Smith • TM Robotics: That’s right. The robotics industry will need to accommodate open-use compatibility and build tools to link with open software, even while maintaining proprietary interfaces. We’ve got partnerships going already, and anticipate that the industry will slowly open up and change.
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