Takeaways from Automatica
Automatica 2018 is one of Europe’s largest robotics and automation trade shows and a destination for global roboticists and business executives to view new products. It was held June 19-22 in Munich and had 890 exhibitors and 46,000 visitors, both up 7% from the previous show.
I was at Automatica from start to finish, seeing all aspects of the show, attending a few ISR keynotes, and had interviews and talks with some very informative industry executives. Here are some of my takeaways.
The Awards go to …
The Joseph Engelberger Award was given to International Federation of Robotics’ (IFR) General Secretary Gudrun Litzenberger and to Universal Robots CTO and co-founder Esben Østergaard (see our Q&A with Østergaard on page XX).
The IFR Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Robotics and Automation (IERA) Award went to three recipients for their unique robots: Lely Holding, the Dutch manufacturer of milking robots, for its Discovery 120 Manure Collector; KUKA Robotics, for its new LBR Med, a lightweight robot certified for integration into medical products; and Perception Robotics for its Gecko Gripper that uses a grasping technology from biomimicry observed in geckos.
Strong Industrial Robot Growth
In addition to the CEO roundtable discussion, IFR President Junji Tsuda previewed the statistics that will appear in this year’s IFR Industrial Robots Annual Report covering 2017 sales data. He reported that 2017 turnover was about $50 billion, that 381,000 robots were sold, a 29% increase over 2016, and that China, which deployed 138,000 robots, was the main driver of 2017’s growth with a 58% increase over 2016 (the US rose only 6% by comparison).
Tsuda attributed the drivers for the 2017 results – and a 15% CAGR forecast for the next few years (25% for service robots) – to be the growing simplification (ease of use) for training robots; collaborative robots; progress in overall digitalization; and AI enabling greater vision and perception.
CEOs Weigh in
During the IFR CEO Roundtable, panelists were asked about their thoughts on where the industry would be five years from now. KUKA Industries Germany Stefan Lampa said we would see a big move toward mobile manipulators doing multiple tasks. Per Vegard Nerseth, ABB senior group vice president, said programming robots would become as easy and intuitive as iPhones.
Dr. Kiyonori Inaba, director executive managing officer, GM, Fanuc, said future mobile robots wouldn’t have to wait for work as current robots often do because they would become more flexible. Markus Kueckelhaus, DHL’s VP of innovations and trend research, forecast that perception would have access to more physics and reality than today. And Professor Dr. Bruno Siciliano, director of ICAROS and coordinator of the PRISMA Lab at the University of Naples Federico II said the tide has turned and more STEM kids are coming into the realm of automation and robotics.
In relation to jobs, all panelists members said the next 30 years would see dramatic changes in new jobs not yet defined as present labor retires and skilled labor shortages force governments to invest in retraining.
The panelists also said artificial intelligence would have major impacts on the following areas:
- In logistics, particularly in the combined activities of mobility and grasping
- In the increased use of sensors which enable new efficiencies particularly in QC and anomaly detection
- In clean room improvements
- And in in-line improvements, eg, spray painting
Cobots were touted throughout Automatica. Universal Robots (UR), the originator of the cobot, had a mammoth booth that was always jammed with visitors as the Danish manufacturer introduced its new e-Series. There were many other cobots present that were very stylish, but none of them had the mechanical prowess of UR. In fact, UR robots were used in many non-UR booths throughout Automatica, thereby indicating UR’s acceptance within the industry.
ABB and Kawasaki announced a common interface for each of their two-armed cobots. They hope other companies will join the cause and that the group would soon add single-arm robots to the software, emphasizing the problem in training robots where each has their own proprietary training method.
- Bin-picking, which had as much presence and hype 10 years ago as cobots had five years ago and IoT and AI had this year, is blasé now. The technology has finally become widely deployed and almost matches the original hype.
- AI and the Internet-of-Things were buzzwords and vendors that offered platforms to stream, store, handle, combine, process, analyze and make predictions were plentiful.
- Better programming solutions for cobots and even industrial robots are appearing, but they still have a ways to go.
- 24/7 robot monitoring is gaining favor, but access to company systems and equipment is still mostly withheld for security reasons.
- Many special-purpose exoskeletons were shown to help improve factory workers do their jobs.
- The Danish robotics cluster is every bit as successful as clusters in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Silicon Valley.
- Vision and distancing systems, plus standards for same, are enabling cheaper automation.
- Hype about digitalization, data and AI, IoT, and machine (deep) learning was everywhere.
Transforming end-of-arm devices
Dr. Michael Zürn, an exec from Daimler AG gave a talk about Mercedes Benz’s use of robotics. He said the company has 50 robots and at least 500 different grippers. Yet humans with two hands could do every one of those tasks, albeit with superhuman strength in some cases.
He welcomed the years of testing of ABB’s two-armed YuMi robots because they’re the closest to what they need, despite being nowhere near what a twohanded person can do.
Enrico Krog Iversen was the CEO of Universal Robots from 2008-2016 when it sold to Teradyne. Since then he has invested in and cultivated three companies (OnRobot, Perception Robotics and OptoForce) that he merged together to become OnRobot A/S.
Iversen is the CEO of the new entity. With this foundation of sensors, a growing business in grippers and integrating UR and Mobile Industrial Robots [MiR] systems, and a promise to acquire a vision and perception component, Iversen foresees building an entity where everything that goes on a robot can be acquired from his company – and it will have a single intuitive user interface. This latter aspect, a single intuitive interface for all, is a very convenient feature that users request but can’t often find.
Martin Hägele, head of the Robotics and Assistive Systems Department at Fraunhofer IPA in Stuttgart, advocated that there is a transformation coming where end-of-arm devices will increasingly include advanced sensing, more actuation, and user interaction.
It seems logical. The end of the robot arm is where all the action is — the sensors, cameras, handling devices and the item to be processed. Times have changed from when robots were blind and being fed by expensive positioning systems.
“We are convinced that industrial gripping will change radically in the coming years,” said Schunk CEO Henrik Schunk. “Smart grippers will interact with the user and their environment. They will continuously capture and process data and independently develop the gripping strategy in complex and changing environments and do so faster and more flexibly than man ever could.”
KUKA Humanoid Concept
KUKA, in a booth far away from its main booth (where it was demonstrating industrial, mobile and collaborative robotics products), was showing a 5-foot-tall humanoid robot concept with a big screen and stylish 18-inch silver cone behind the screen. It looked like an airport or store guide. When I asked what it did, I was told that it was the woofer for the sound system and the robot didn’t do anything. It is one of many concept devices Kuka is reviewing.
Nevertheless, KUKA had a brochure that didn’t show or even refer to any of the concept robots it showed at Automatica. Instead it was all hype about what it might do sometime in the future: purify air, be a gaming console, have an “underhead projector”, HiFi speaker, camera, coffee and wellness head and “provide robotic intelligence that will enrich our daily lives.”
Frank Tobe • Founder of The Robot Report