Top takeaways from AUTOMATICA 2014
AUTOMATICA reminds you that there's a whole lot of "stuff" going on inside a robot.
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.
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After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.
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