CHICAGO — There were many commercial robots at Automate and ProMat 2019 here last week, but which ones stood out? Developers of robotics for the manufacturing and supply chain industries could see exhibits by component makers and complete solution providers, as well as conference panels on applications. The Robot Report culled the following observations from discussions with engineers, suppliers, and analysts at Automate/ProMat.
1. ‘Ease of use’ a mantra
Many of the exhibitors and conference speakers said that designing for ease of use is essential to helping robotics spread beyond automotive and electronics manufacturing.
This year’s Engelberger Award winners, Howie Choset of Carnegie Mellon University and Catherine Morris of the Association for Advancing Automation, have both spent much of their careers helping to make robots easier to use.
Collaborative robot arms and mobile platforms can help manufacturers and logistics providers of all sizes, but programming and integration have to become easier before small and midsize enterprises will adopt more.
“Our concept for the factory of the future is ‘collaboration, simplification, and digitization,’” said Hui Zhang, head of global product management at the robotics business unit of ABB. “We’re investing $150 million in China to build a new factory — robots making robots.”
“Adoption among small and midsize enterprises is still a challenge,” acknowledged Jürgen von Hollen, president of Universal Robots. “Efficiency is not about reducing labor; it’s about getting more out of your investment.”
“We designed the OB7 line to be a complete package for CNC machine tending,” said Zac Bogart, president and CEO of Productive Robotics. “No integration is necessary, and training the robot to find an object takes one button.”
“Toshiba Machine wants to offer a total solution,” said Nigel Smith, president of TM Robotics. “We believe our price-to-performance ratio is a key differentiator.”
Software is also being designed to help users more quickly get robots working. For instance, Ready Robotics‘ Forge product line is intended to make controlling both industrial and collaborative robots easier. Similarly, Sisu said its VUDU visual programming interface and controller don’t require any programming experience.
2. More mobile robots, accessories
A major driver for the growth in mobile robots is the need for greater flexibility in factories and warehouses. From autonomous forklifts and tote conveyors to heavy-lift platforms, mobile robots can enable users to work with existing, non-standardized facilities. They can also help avoid the costs of bolted-down infrastructure such as stationary conveyors, multi-layer racks, and positioning systems.
“In Asia in particular, companies don’t want to invest in more infrastructure,” said von Hollen. “We need to serve customer requirements.”
Cobots and AMRs were two of the best-represented types of robots in McCormick Place. More than 50 mobile robot vendors had booths at Automate/ProMat 2019, observed Mike Oitzman, founder of Mobile Robot Guide.
While there were still plenty of automated guided vehicles (AGVs), particularly at ProMat, several suppliers touted the more advanced navigation and obstacle avoidance of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).
Mobile carts for e-commerce order fulfillment were joined by a new wave of accessories. For instance, 6 River Systems added Mobile Sort to its product line. The system combines machine learning with mobile sort stations and 6RS’s Chuck mobile robots.
The company also featured demonstrations in which attendees could race with the robots.
Picking with Chuck is so easy a 5-year-old can do it. Literally. With 90 seconds of coaching from our co-CEO @jeromeadubois, 5-year-old William masters the basics of our robot Chuck during our Pick to Win competition at #ProMat2019. Way to go, William! pic.twitter.com/4xPR4L3IJE
— 6 River Systems (@6riversystems) April 9, 2019
ROEQ, a partner of Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), showed off its TR500 roller for the MiR500. “We are designed for the 10 standard pallet sizes in the U.S.,” said Peder Grejsen, technical sales manager at ROEQ. “Our nonskid rollers are collaborative and safe.”
Another MiR partner, Nord Modules, displayed its modular system for lifting and loading payloads onto MiR’s mobile robots. Relative newcomers to the U.S. market for AMRs included GreyOrange and Geek+.
“We’ve worked directly with Vecna and MiR, and our APIs [application programming interfaces] are simple and can provide 2cm [0.78 in.] precision,” said Sean Lorenz, director of product marketing at Humatics. “GPS fails in urban canyons, and we can help mobile robots and cranes in noisy environments.”
3. It’s all about the base
These larger robots are a far cry from the carts that follow (or lead) warehouse workers. Not only are they able to move autonomously through more dynamic environments, thanks to cheaper lidar and more sophisticated software, but they can also serve as mounts for multiple collaborative robot arms.
Some are big enough to carry a car chassis, leading to visions of more flexible manufacturing. Imagine, instead of a car moving down an assembly line to be worked on by single-purpose machines, a swarm of robots moving around the vehicle. Such heavy AMRs could also be useful in construction and agriculture, growing applications for robotics.
4. Cobot, gripper makers focus on applications
At Automate/ProMat, there was as much of an emphasis on the utility of cobot arms and grippers as on new models. “I want people to stop buying robots and to start buying applications,” said Enrico Krog Iversen, CEO of gripper maker OnRobot.
“The biggest shift in our display this year is from products to applications,” said UR’s von Hollen. “We’re looking at four key applications that are a good fit for our technology: screw-driving, inspection, machine tending, and packaging.”
“Many traditional automation providers thought of collaboration as just a safety measure, but for us, it just gets us on the playing field,” he said. “We’re still just scratching the surface of industrial applications globally.”
The number of competing cobot makers is leading to specialization and a race to add capabilities. AUBO Robotics showed three new, long-reach cobots in Chicago.
Omron Automation also showed off human-machine interaction in its “Factory Harmony” demonstrations, which included vision-guided robots, laser-marking tracing, and its mobile robots and new TM-series cobot.
In addition to the cobots offered by the top industrial automation vendors — ABB, FANUC, KUKA, and Yaskawa — Automate attendees could see Sawyer from Rethink Robotics, whose brand continues thanks to the Hahn Group.
5. Mobile manipulation arrives
The combination of mobile and collaborative robots seems obvious, but the challenges of power, safety, and precision have taken time to overcome. Several mobile manipulators were demonstrated at Automate/ProMat 2019, but there have been relatively few use cases so far.
“Our smart production cell is ideal for small-batch manufacturing,” said Sebastien Schmitt, North American division manager at Stäubli.
KUKA’s KMR iiwa is a cobot mounted on a mobile robot, using SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping).
“We have experience in mission-critical markets such as satellite manufacturing and life sciences,” said Michka Tosan, a sales application engineer at KUKA Robotics. “The mobile shop floor will drive down ergonomic costs.”
IAM Robotics last week demonstrated expanded capabilities for its Swift mobile picking robot, as well as Bolt, its new tote-transport robot.
Coming to the U.S. is Magazino’s Toru robot, which is designed specifically for picking and placing shoeboxes on shelves. It’s able to do so from the lowest shelves and from beneath other boxes, explained Florian Wahl, public relations manager. In Europe, returns are usually free within two weeks, so goods there have a 40% return rate, he said. Magazino is expanding its mobile manipulation with Soto, which has a bigger gondola for totes.
One of the flashier debuts of the past week was Boston Dynamics’ Handle robot, a wheeled, ostrich-like mobile manipulator for reaching and moving large boxes. While mobile version wasn’t at the show, the company did have demonstrations of the industrial arm and suction grippers.
6. Software and AI specialize
Most hardware makers would contend that their robots have not yet become commoditized, but they might agree that the software stack is becoming increasingly important and specialized. In addition to perception, navigation, and manipulation, developers are building layers for data sharing, controls, and security.
“Our Actin SDK is the opposite of UR arms — it’s a specific tool for broad applications,” said Neil Tardella, CEO of Energid Technologies. “Our motion-planning software is robot-agnostic, and it can control both industrial robots and cobots.”
RightHand Robotics Inc. released its RightPick2 platform for robotic pick-and-place operations. It combines the RightPick.AI vision and motion-control software using deep learning with hardware upgrades.
“The [first version of the] RightPick platform has successfully completed 10 million picks autonomously across many industries, including e-commerce, retail, pharmaceuticals, grocery, and more,” said Leif Jentoft, co-founder of RightHand Robotics.
XYZ Robotics’ Rebinning Station and Packing Station uses machine learning to speed up piece picking. PlusOne Robotics said it “creates order from chaos” with its software for mixed parcel singulation, remote robot management, and quality assurance for parcel induction.
Locus Robotics’ “Spring 2019” software release is “the industry’s first, full omnichannel support that seamlessly handles all aspects of fulfillment for retail, wholesale, and e-commerce channels,” said CEO Rick Faulk.
Tend.ai was an example of a company actually applying artificial intelligence to predictive maintenance for manufacturing. There were also stationary robots using intelligent grasping at Automate/ProMat, such as those of Kindred.
“The attitude of users is changing; it’s interesting to see a new generation approaching applications in a different way,” said Steve Green, general manager of robotics and solutions at KUKA. “One of our biggest customers is a startup on the West Coast, and AI can help identify products that robots haven’t seen before.”
Inspekto’s autonomous machine vision system is designed to eliminate the need for vision integrators and to work, regardless of lighting conditions, said attendee Harel Boren, CEO of the Israeli-German company.
At the same time, many of the references to AI at Automate/ProMat were about machine learning for vision, navigation, or grasping rather than deep learning or robots actually using AI, noted Frank Tobe.
7. Simulation from the ground up
“Digitalization covers the entire lifecycle, starting from design,” ABB’s Zhang told The Robot Report. “With RobotStudio and virtual reality, a group can collaborate remotely on designing a work cell. We’re partnering with Dassault on building digital twins on a larger scale.”
At Siemens’ booth, videos demonstrated how Xsens’ 3-D motion-tracking system can add humans to digital twins of processes.
“In addition, our simulation packages can generate PLC code from a digital twin, and you can test the PLC on that twin and then send code to the robot,” said Bhaskar Chopra, industry manager for material handling, strategic business development, and motion control at Siemens. “We can go from simulating a process to a plant floor to global management.”
8. Incremental progress at Automate/ProMat
While there was a lot to see at this year’s Automate/ProMat, several attendees said that they saw little that was groundbreaking. However, the latest models of AMRs, cobots, and industrial automation did show incremental improvements in sensors, software, and end effectors.
Servo provider Kollmorgen livened up the show floor with its boxing robot display, and other component providers were scattered around the Automate/ProMat expo halls.
“Robotics technology is more mature, and customers realize that it has been vetted,” explained UR’s von Hollen. “With political and economic uncertainty, companies realize that they need more flexible investments. We’re being brought into projects much sooner, and we rolled out 500 to 600 cobots in 12 months for one customer order.”
9. Exploring new markets
Robotics companies from Denmark and Massachusetts were well-represented at Automate/ProMat 2019, but suppliers from China to Germany were focused on growing existing markets and finding new applications.
“We’re finding that [robotics for] electronics is growing faster than automotive or metals,” said ABB’s Hui Zhang. “In the U.S., medical instruments and food and beverage are still growing strong.”
OnRobot’s Iversen told The Robot Report that Automate was providing many good sales leads, with some people signing contracts on the spot. “We need to move beyond traditional verticals, and our partner network must cover all industries,” he said. “Strong competition keeps us on our toes — it’s good for our industry and for end users.”
“Our product has been used for critical systems such as surgical robots, and we’re expanding in industrial automation,” said Energid’s Tardella.
“The number of systems integrators we partner with is increasing, which helps grow the number of end users,” said Rick Brookshire, group product manager at Epson Robots. “We’re also hiring salespeople and application engineers.”
Unlike other vendors, Epson makes many of its own components and put its pricing on signs in its booth. “We stay out of the high-low game,” Brookshire said. “We leave the 100-kg-plus robots to others. Our VT6L is priced at $13,900 to make automation accessible.”
Even as Western companies try to expand in Asia, South Korea-based Doosan Robotics entered the North American market with its cobots at Automate/ProMat.
10. Looking ahead to the future of automation, industry
Industry 4.0 or the factory of the future might be coming, but many robotics developers at the event said that they’re watching technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G to see how they’ll affect their businesses.
“There is already a tremendous amount of data being collected,” said one attendee. “It’s more a matter of delivering it to the right person at the right time than applying a lot of AI to it.”
ABB recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Ericsson to work on adding ABB’s automation with Ericsson’s high-performance connectivity.
The Association for Advancing Automation (A3) and the Material Handling Institute (MHI), the organizers of Automate and ProMat, respectively, have said that they have outgrown their colocated space in Chicago. The next Automate will be in 2021 in Detroit, while ProMat 2021 will stay in Chicago.
In the meantime, robotics developers, integrators, and users can look forward to the Robotics Summit & Expo in Boston in June, as well as A3’s Vision Show 2020 in Boston and MHI’s Modex 2020 in Atlanta.