Top takeaways from AUTOMATICA 2014
When you see a slick robot, say for instance the new Aldebaran Pepper robot, you can easily be distracted by the design, the gestures, the interaction, and the cuteness. But AUTOMATICA reminds you that there’s a whole lot of "stuff" going on inside that robot.
#1 Robots and robotics are fascinatingly complex
Whether humanoid, industrial or service, robots are complex pieces of machinery with hundreds of components, all with special needs. For example, you can’t just use regular cables because of the number of movements, range and quantity of repeated motion the robot is likely to make. Cables, wires, belts, connectors, housings, fasteners and skins all need to handle that kind of motion and this level of special-needs is true for most of the parts, devices, components and sensors making up the robot. Then there’s the software, controllers, connectors, batteries, actuators, microcontrollers, servos, motors, wheels, sensors, structural materials, grippers, etc. Not to mention the research, libraries and algorithms that make up the motion control of those robots. Consequently #1 on my list of takeaways from this year’s AUTOMATICA is what amazing and complex machines robots are and how many different companies contribute to the finished product.
#2 The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming
Recently there have been a few moves to acquaint the West with Russian robotics. Certainly they have expertise in the sciences of various types of robotics (space, military, etc.) and recently they’ve had a few expos and conferences in Moscow with multiple goals: (1) to acquaint the West with what Russia has to offer; (2) to keep Russian innovation in-country; and (3) to gather investors and strategic partnerships to build a robotics industry in Russia. Russia doesn’t have many robots at work in their factories nor do they have many robot manufacturers. What they have is scientists and software engineers waiting to be put to use. Consequently it was no surprise that there was a large booth representing Russian robotic science and seeking investors and partners. Russia already has an outpost in Silicon Valley to provide venture support for Russian entrepreneurs selling their products and talent to the West. Now, with government encouragement, Russia wants to foster innovations that can be produced in Russia instead of the West. Their booth was called Moscow City and served really tasty Russian appetizers, but had little traffic.
#3 China is in the market for robots
China’s new China Robotics Industry Alliance (CRIA) made its presence known for the first time at AUTOMATICA in a very small out-of-the-way booth. They were handing out their new 31-member list and promoting their website, publications and events such as the forthcoming China International Robot Show and conference being held July 9-11 in Shanghai.
At an International Federation of Robotics (IFR) press conference held at AUTOMATICA it was announced that in 2013 China became the largest buyer of industrial robots. Their purchases from 2009 to 2013 increased at a rate of 36% annually, and it is expected that that pace will continue for the rest of the decade, at least. Further, the Chinese government has made robotics a target for in-country production and is providing loans and research grants to help stimulate growth. But in the meantime, they have become the biggest buyer of robots, some of which are made or assembled in China by German, Swiss, Japanese and Korean vendors.
#4 Shoulder-to-shoulder: a new generation of collaborative robots
At almost every robot manufacturers booth was either a demo robot able to work alongside a human or advertising materials and videos showing collaboration of one type or another between human workers and their robots. Much of it was hype but it is true that co-bots are coming.
In the Stäubli booth, they were playing a video showing a child interacting with a robot and saying that their robots worked with speed, precision, safety and with man.
Human-robot interaction is happening for sure, but not at the pace the advertising materials suggest and the salesmen are selling. The bigger companies are very concerned about safety, proceeding very slowly, and letting new companies lead the way. For example, VW and BMW, formerly the exclusive turf of the big four of robotics (KUKA, Yaskawa, ABB and Fanuc) are experimenting with Universal Robots co-bots in two of their car-manufacturing plants to collaborate with human workers and do the ergonomically challenging tasks that humans have had to do before.
We appear to be in the hype phase of collaborative robotics where the vision is there but the timing and cost metrics haven’t really been calculated just yet.
#5 Many new co-bot and robot vendor start-ups
One roboticist commented after making the rounds that he was surprised at the quantity of start-up companies making robotic arms. He thought there would soon be a shake-out because not that many could exist. There did appear to be a lot of new arm, software, gripper and other start-up companies. More than I remember from previous shows and many focused on the SME and industrial marketplaces instead of academia, service or healthcare. Human-machine collaboration may be in its beginning phase (see the slide from an IFR presentation), but it was talked about and demonstrated everywhere at AUTOMATICA.
In one section of one Hall (there were five Halls at the show), RG Mechatronics’ GomTek arm was displayed; Bionic Robotics demo’d their BioRob arm; Autonox24 had a new 5-axis parallel robot; F&P showed their new arm; KUKA’s new LBR iiwa arm had its own huge booth; and this was just in a small section of one of the five halls at AUTOMATICA. Other new arms were shown in other halls, some quite notable such as the new Mabi lightweight arm from Swiss MABI Robotic.
#6 Bin picking, box moving and mobility
Someday soon mobility solutions will combine with bin picking systems so that extensive space and costly conveyor and material handling systems will no longer be necessary to go from one phase of the manufacturing process to another. Every robot vendor displayed bin picking in their booth. Many described the gripping, vision and collision avoidance software involved "challenging" when responding to the question as to why bin picking isn’t more widely adapted.
At the Fraunhofer IPA booth, where they work on innovating new and fine-tuning various aspects of industrial robotics, they were showing a new automated bin picking software system using a robot with two arms. The system is capable of detecting and localizing objects, computing the appropriate grasping points and planning how to remove the part from the bin without collision with other parts or the walls of the bin. The two-armed robot can alternately pick components from the bin and, if necessary, even grip and put them down accurately with its second arm.
#7 SMErobotics and Fraunhofer IPA
SMErobotics, the EU public-private-partnership (PPP) to provide robotic solutions for small and medium-sized enterprises, has defined the need for software improvements such as those achieved by Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots and suggested that it was time to incorporate "smart" and "intuitive" technologies into the robot programming process. The big pitch that SMErobotics makes is that the robot must be plug and play, easy to program, and safe. The contention is that SME will know what needs to be done and won’t need an integrator to help them set it up and get it running.
SMErobotics had a booth at AUTOMATICA and along with the Fraunhofer IPA, displayed their work-in-process toward such a new training and robot instruction methodology. It was a slick presentation and very comprehensive albeit it took a personal guide to actually see and understand all that they were showing.
SMErobotics’ approach is to provide software components that help plan what is needed. It determines and develops the necessary robot sequences and grasp methods either from CAD data or from physical training of the robot and then generates and graphically displays robot programs to implement those motions and sequences. The software incorporated many new innovations: a tablet interface, sensors and the robot instructed from the same interface, the PC-based control system works on any robot and sensor setup, and the system learns normal robot behavior and detects unexpected deviations. But as slick as it was, it was still on the drawing board and not yet being deployed in the field.
#8 "Robots at Work" series from the Financial Times
Financial Times reporters made the rounds at AUTOMATICA 2014 and crafted a series of 18 stories on the subject of robots and robotics:
(1) Co-workers who toil 24 hours a day; (2) Baxter takes on dull, repetitive tasks; (3) Japan’s robot makers under threat; (4) Robots take over Korean operating tables; (5) Managers wanted, must understand robots; (6) Robot makers aim at tech industry; (7) Rockwell reaps big data robotics rewards; (8) Silicon Valley seeks to embrace robotics; (9) Robots: rise of the machines; (10) New robot army in the work place; (11) Festo takes a leap with its robot kangaroo; (12) Softbank offers robots with a human side; (13) How to raise a personable robot; (14) Robot makers told by EU to calm job fears; (15) China overtakes Japan as top robot buyer; (16) BMW robots un-caged and put to work beside staff; (17) South Korean robot lead the world; (18) BMW’s mini plant armed with future proof robots. All 18 stories can be secured via this link.
#9 Industry 4.0 gets big push and billions of Euros
On the first day of AUTOMATICA it was announced that The Partnership for Robotics in Europe (SPARC), a public-private partnership of 180 companies and research organizations, is the EU’s policy effort to strengthen Europe’s global robotics market with the goal of increasing Europe’s share of that market to 42% (a boost of €4 billion per year). As part of the project, the EU will invest €700 million and the PPP will invest €2.1 billion.
Application areas emphasized by SPARC include manufacturing, healthcare, home care, agriculture, security, cleaning waste, water and air, transport and entertainment.
SPARC provides €100 million in funding per year for 7 years. By comparison, in the U.S., the National Robotics Initiative program is a one-time grant of $50 million (about 37% of the EU annual funding).
#10 Schunk is everywhere
Every show I visit, every conference I attend, in every lab that I go to, Schunk is almost always there (as they were at AUTOMATICA 2014), sometimes as an exhibitor, other times as a silent participant as their modular arms and grippers are used by others. Their smooth shiny silver and powder blue modular arms with contrasting black and silver grippers can be seen everywhere. This family-owned company has solid products and also gives back to the robotics community. Their annual International Expert Days Service Robotics conference held each year at their factory in Lauffen, Germany is an example.