Benefits of robotics-as-a-service for manufacturers
Robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) is an emerging trend in manufacturing. Rising labor shortages, competitive global markets, and automation are changing traditional business models. Whether it’s a short-term need, companies wanting to try before they buy, forgoing a capital expenditure (CAPEX), or lowering the cost of entry to robotic automation, RaaS can be useful for companies. RaaS provides robots on demand, when and where needed.
More users are seeking flexible automation implementations. More suppliers are offering rental and leasing options to satisfy the demand. Some are mature companies answering the call; others are manufacturing industry startups. This is a major turnaround from even several years ago when the manufacturing industry was wary of the idea of cage-free robots rubbing elbows with human coworkers. Now every major robot manufacturer has a collaborative robot on its roster, and a slew of startups add more options.
RaaS, like human-robot collaboration, is helping make more robots more available to more applications.
Out-of-the-box offerings like the TaskMate by Ready Robotics, which are easy to use and easy to deploy, are among RaaS options. (Ed. note: The TaskMate’s name was changed to Forge/Station in early 2019, after this article was originally published).
“The TaskMate is a ready-to-use, on-demand robot worker that is specifically designed to come out of its shipping crate ready to be deployed to the production line,” said Ready Robotics CEO Ben Gibbs, noting manufacturers without the time to undertake custom robot integration are looking for out-of-the box automation. Rental options make the foray easier.
“Time is their most precious resource,” Gibbs said. “They may have to do a little fixturing or put together a parts presentation hopper. Besides that, it’s something they can deploy pretty quickly. We’re driving towards providing a solution that’s as easy to use as your personal computer.”
The system consists of a collaborative robot arm mounted on a stand with casters, so it can be wheeled into position on the production floor. The ease of portability suits high-mix, low-volume production where it can be relocated to different manufacturing cells. Two varieties each have robot arms, equipped with a force sensor and a universal interface that allows different robot grippers to be hot-swapped onto the end of the arm.
Contributing to the system is the proprietary operating system, the Forge operating system (OS) software. A simple flowchart interface (pictured) controls the robot arm, end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) and other peripherals. No coding is required. Running the Forge/OS software, the controller provides the same easy programming interface but is designed as a standalone system for other robots.
Cloud robotics and RaaS
A common element in the RaaS rental model is cloud robotics. Ready offers customers the ability to remotely monitor its robotic system or others connected to its controller.
“We can set them up with alerts, so when the production cycle is completed or the robot enters an unexpected error state, they can receive an email notifying the floor manager or line operator to check the system,” Gibbs said.
Users also can save and back up programs to the cloud, and deploy them from one robot to another. If an operator inadvertently lost a program, they could drop the backup version from the cloud onto the system and be up and running again in minutes.
“We provide a menu to our customers of how they might want to consume our products and services,” Gibbs said, including traditional CapEx (capital expenditure) purchase or “they can rent the system with no contract for however long or short of a duration they want.”
For an additional charge, the company can manage the entire asset.
“We set it up, we program it, and we remotely monitor it to make sure it’s maximizing its uptime. We can come in and tweak the program if it’s running into unexpected errors.” The systems have cell modems for remote software updates.” We handle all of the maintenance, or it’s handled by our channel partners.”
No-term rental; easy first robotic use
Gibbs said flexibility is the biggest advantage to their rental option. Even with the 3-month trial rental, customers are not required to keep it for the full term.
“We have a no-term rental. That’s even more appealing because it can come entirely out of your operating expenditure (OPEX) budget. Instead of going through a lengthy CAPEX approval process, we’ve had some customers just run their corporate credit card, because the rental is below their approval level for an OpEx purchase. They can easily set up the system and use it for a few months. That alone provides them with a much stronger justification for moving forward with CAPEX if they want, or just continue to expand their rental. At the end of the first month, if they decide that it’s not working out,” Gibbs said, they can just send it back.
If the customer chooses to continue renting, Gibbs said it’s more cost-effective to sign a contract. This reduces the risk for everyone, so there’s often a financial incentive.
“The primary way we differentiate ourselves is that we offer that no-term rental with a fixed monthly fee, which allows these factories to capture the traditional value of automation. We don’t have a meter running that says you ran it 22 hours this day, so you owe us for 22 hours of work. We encourage them to run it as long as they want. The expectation is the longer you run it, the cheaper it should be.”
High-mix, low-volume flexibility
Attwood Marine in Lowell, Mich., is one of the world’s largest producers of boat parts, accessories and supplies. They make thousands of different parts, but cater to a small marine market. The challenges of high-mix, low-volume production in a competitive market had them looking for flexible automation.
Attwood deployed the robot to a half-dozen cells on the production floor performing computer numerical control (CNC) machine tending, pick-and-place tasks like palletizing, loading/unloading conveyors, case packing, and repetitive testing, such as actuating a switch or pulling a cord 250,000 times.
By deploying one robot system to multiple production cells, Attwood was able to spread its return on investment (ROI) across multiple product lines and realize up to a 30% reduction in overall manufacturing costs.
Small- to mid-sized businesses and large multinationals can use the robot for machine tending CNC lathes.
“Multinationals may have robot programmers on staff, but usually not enough of them,” Gibbs said. “Automation engineers are in high demand and very difficult to come by. Any technology that makes it faster and easier for people to set up robots is a tremendous value.” Some large multinationals “like to be asset-light and do a rental, but everyone loves the ease of programming.”
Business models under the RaaS umbrella vary and are evolving. Startups like Hirebotics and Kindred leverage cloud robotics to monitor robot uptime, collect data, and enhance performance using AI. They charge by the hour, or even by the second. Users pay for only what they use. Each service model has its advantages.
Some RaaS companies offer subscription-based models. Some took a page from the sharing economy, emulating companies like Airbnb and Lyft. For some, pay as you go is preferred to the overhead and infrastructure with a long-term commitment.
Mobile robots for hire
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are available via RaaS model also. RIA members Aethon and Savioke lease mobile robots for various applications in healthcare, hospitality and manufacturing. Startup inVia Robotics offers an RaaS subscription for its warehouse “Picker” robots.
AMRs, part of the logistics robot market, have advanced to serve an always-on supply chain. In the last two years, prototypes and beta deployments have turned into full product lines with significant investor funding. Major users like Amazon, DHL, Walmart and Kroger are adding to their mobile fleets.
Europe-based Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) began in North America two years ago. After seeing comparable North American growth, MiR has launched a lease program.
Responding to customer demands for larger payloads, MiR introduced its 500-kg mobile platform in June 2018. The MiR500 (pictured) features a pallet transport system that lifts pallets off a rack and autonomously delivers them.
“Everybody we deal with today is making a big push to eliminate forklift traffic from the inner aisleways of production lines,” said Ed Mullen, vice president of sales – Americas for MiR in Holbrook, New York. “That’s really driving the whole launch of the MiR500. We’ve gone through some epic growth here in my division.”
Mullen’s division is responsible for supporting MiR’s extensive distributor network in all markets between Canada and Brazil. He said the company has seen applications in industrial automation, warehouses and distribution centers in many industries.
Although Mullen cited successful sales, RaaS is expected to make it even easier to work with this emerging technology.
“We think a leasing option will allow companies that are still trying to understand the use cases for the technology to get in quicker, and then slowly scale the business up as they learn how to apply it and what the sweet spots are for autonomous mobile robots,” Mullen said. “The lease option is intended to reduce the cost of entry. Today it’s mainly the bigger multinationals that are buying, but we believe by providing options for lower entry points, this will make the use cases in the small-to-midsized companies come to light.”
He said a third-party company will handle the leases. MiR’s distributor network will engage with the third-party company for lease programs.
MiR has also implemented a preferred system integrator (PSI) program to augment the existing network of distribution partners. A few years ago, it was large companies investing in these mobile platforms. They were purchasing in volumes of one to five robots. Today, MiR is seeing investments of 20 to more than 50 robots.
“When you get into these bigger deployments, it’s more critical to have companies that are equipped to handle them,” Mullen said. “Our distribution partners are set up as a sales channel. Although most of them have integration capabilities, they don’t want to invest in deploying hundreds of robots at one time. They rather hand that off to a company that’s able to properly support large-scale deployments.”
Over the last couple of years, MiR had been focused on bringing more efficiency to the manufacturing process, not necessarily replacing existing autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) and forklifts.
“For example, you have a guy that gets paid a healthy salary to sit in front of a machine tool and use his skills to do a certain task. That’s what makes the company money. But when he has to get up and carry a tray of parts to the next phase in the production cycle, that’s inefficient. That’s what we’ve been focusing on, at least with our MiR100 and MiR200 (pictured). With the new MiR500, we’re going after heavier loads and palletizer loads. It’s replacing AGVs and forklifts and big conveyor companies like Simplimatic Automation and FlexLink are moving to a flexible platform with autonomous mobile robots.”
Software continues to become more intuitive and easier to use. MiR offers two software packages, the operating system that comes with the robot and the fleet management software that manages two or more robots. The latter is not a requirement, but Mullen said most companies are investing in it to get additional functionality when interfacing with their enterprise system. The newest fleet system is moving to a cloud-based option.
Hardware and software updates are handled through the company’s distribution channel. Mullen doesn’t think that will change under the lease option.
“The support model will stay the same,” he said. “Our distributors are all trained on hardware updates, preventive maintenance and troubleshooting,” which has worked well for MiR, Mullen said.
Mullen said he’s looking forward to future new products. MiR is also hiring.
High-tech, short-term need
While many startups are adopting nontraditional models like RaaS, industry stalwarts are coming on board, too.
RobotWorx, established in 1992, is part of Scott Technology Ltd., a century-old New Zealand-based company specializing in automated production, robotics and process machinery. RobotWorx joined the Scott family of international companies in 2014 and became an RIA Certified Robot Integrator.
The company buys, reconditions and sells used robots, along with maintaining an inventory of new robotic systems and offering full robot integration and training services. The company has been renting robots for several years, before it was a trend. But in response to the recent upswing in industry requests, RobotWorx expanded its rental program in 2018.
“We’ve done a lot with the TV and film industry,” said Tom Fischer, operations manager for RobotWorx in Marion, Ohio. “If you’ve seen the latest AT&T commercial, there are blue and orange robots in it. We rented those out for a week.”
Dubbed “Bruce” and “Linda” on strips of tape along their outstretched arms, these robots have a starring role in AT&T Business commercials promoting Edge-to-Edge Intelligence solutions. Fischer said companies in this industry usually select a particular size of robot, typically either a long-reach or large-payload material handling robot.
Ever wonder if the robots in commercials are only there for effect? It turns out, not always. AT&T’s ad agency must have a robot wrangler off camera to keep Bruce and Linda in line. However, the other robots in the background are the result of TV magic.
“We basically just sent them the robots,” Fischer said. “They did what they wanted to do with them and then sent them back.”
For quick gigs like this commercial, or maybe a movie cameo or even a trade show display, rental robots make sense. But how do companies know when it’s better to rent or buy?
“We’ll do a cost analysis with the customer,” Fischer said. “We have an ROI calculator on our website if they want to see what their long-term commitment capital investment would be. We also look at it from the standpoint that if they have a long-term contract with somebody, their return on investment is going to be a lot better with a purchase. If they think they’re only going to use the robot for six months, it doesn’t make sense for them to buy it.”
RobotWorx rents robots by the week, month or year. A week is the minimum, but there’s no long-term commitment required. A rental includes a robot, the robot controller, teach pendant and end-of-arm tooling (EOAT). They also rent ready-to-ship robot cells for welding or material handling. The most popular systems are the RWZero (pictured) and RW950 cells.
“The RWZero cell is very basic,” Fischer said. “You have a widget, and you need 5,000 of them. Rent this cell and you have a production line instantly.”
The RW950 is more portable. Fischer called it a “pallet platform.” The robot, controller, operator station and workpiece positioner share a common base, which is a large steel structure that can be moved with a forklift.
“We’ve done a lot of the small weld cells,” Fischer said. “We always have a couple on hand so we can supply those on demand. We’ve done larger material handling cells, as well. We have a third-party company that does the financing if you need it. A lot of people just end up paying it upfront. If they were to purchase the robot after they’ve rented it, we apply that towards the purchase.”
Fischer said 20% of the rental price is credited to the purchase if a customer decides to keep the robot. All the robots and robotic cells are up to date on maintenance before they leave the RobotWorx floor and shouldn’t require any major maintenance for at least a year. He said most customers end up buying the robot if their rental period exceeds a year.
Time is not always the deciding factor under the RaaS model. As robotic systems become easier to deploy and redeploy, the idea of RaaS will gain more permanence over a longer period. In the future, robotics in our workplaces and homes will be as ubiquitous as the internet.
Tanya M. Anandan is contributing editor for the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and Robotics Online. RIA is a not-for-profit trade association dedicated to improving the regional, national, and global competitiveness of the North American manufacturing and service sectors through robotics and related automation. This article originally appeared on the RIA website. The RIA is a part of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media & Technology, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keywords: robotics, robotics-as-a-service, RaaS
Robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) allows companies to utilize robots for their operations on a short-term basis for specific needs.
Some companies selling RaaS go with a pay-as-you-go model while other companies have subscriptions set up.
Technology advances and ease of use are helping RaaS gain traction in manufacturing and other industries.
What applications in your plant would benefit from RaaS?