|A version of this post originally appeared on Singularity Hub, June 6, 2012.
By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher
|Robot manufacturers are beginning to shift their
attention from industrial to service robots.
The robotics industry is on the cusp of a major transformation. Today’s factory robots are solitary precision instruments, mimicking the repertoire of capabilities of skilled craftsmen while repeating a handful of tasks thousands of times over. But future factory robots will likely have to be capable of thousands of tasks, performing each only several times, and they will work in collaboration with humans.
Furthermore, interest in nonindustrial robots is emerging at an even quicker pace, and new and larger marketplaces are opening up as never before. But that means some pretty significant shifts in design from caged robots to adjacent workers, from stationary position to portable motion, from programming intensive to easily trainable, and from connected to autonomous robots. Even as they work to improve upon their current industrial offerings, robotics companies are closely watching demand for co-robots, which are the safe, flexible, vision-enabled and easily trainable robotic assistants that science fiction movies made culturally popular.
Thus the reinvention of robotics is fundamentally a transition from industrial robotics to service robotics, and one that is demanding flexibility and versatility beyond what is presently available.
Facing the Major Technological Challenges:
Examining the strategies and unique approaches of companies making this transition can lend insight into how manufacturers will overcome the technological challenges, position themselves among competitors, and bring new robots quickly to market.
Four Strategies for Transitioning from Industrial to Service and Co-Robotics:
They’ve released a new lightweight and sensitive arm that can be affixed to a tabletop or workbench that is sensitive enough to safely work alongside humans. They also have plans to take their manufacturing and automation experience and enter new marketplaces, particularly entertainment (they have a ride robot), assembly and co-robotics (delta-type robots and lightweight arms working alongside humans), and healthcare and medical (cleanroom robots, lab robots).
Kuka has also developed an entirely different type of robot: the youBot. It’s organized for the education and research marketplace and includes a mobile and also fixed 2-fingered 5 DOF plug and play robot arm selling for $31,000 and $21,000 respectively. youBots run the open source robotic operating system ROS prevalent in most major robotic learning centers and could be Kuka’s inroad to the co-robotic market.
|Graphic from Yaskawa.co.jp website.
Yaskawa is developing a line of robotic products to fill the “Robotics Human Assist Business.” The SME marketplace is included in their plan as are new market areas where robotic devices augment and assist humans. Their plan covers workers, seniors, disabled people, and early adopters of other human-assist products.
|On a recent visit to Tokyo, I met with Dr. Koji Tomita, Manager, Smart Robotics Center,
Kazuo Miyazawa, General Manager, Smart Robotics Center and Shingo Ando,
Manager, RT Control Technology Team (from left to right) and they showed me SmartPal V,
a prototype for their next generation human assist robot.
Yaskawa is already marketing their two-armed Motoman multi-tasking robots and expects to begin introducing additional products and capabilities in 2015. They recently restructured their R&D by creating a new Smart Robotics Center (SRC) with the mission of accelerating R&D to enable human assist products and their 2015 target date.
Adept’s strategy is meshing proven business processes with new tech to form commercially ready solutions and involves (1) acquisitions to supplement and acquire capabilities it feels it needs for the future, and (2) aggressively marketing into new markets in food processing and materials handling.
One acquisition enabled Adept to add mobility to its line of products; another supplemented Adept’s food processing technology arsenal and offered a European base as well. Through it’s 2010 acquisition of MobileRobots, Adept now provides a mobile platform for a variety of purposes. One purpose is as a gofor in a hospital. They’ve teamed with Swisslog to ferry medicine from the dispensary to nurses stations and back again thereby enabling nurses to focus on patient care instead of getting things.
By acquiring InMoTx, a Danish provider of food-processing technology in 2011, Adept was able to add a portfolio of flexible gripping IP (intellectual property) for inspecting, sorting, grading and hygienically packaging unwrapped food products. Hygienically gripping irregularly shaped food products has emerged as one of the biggest constraints in automating food packaging. This acquisition expands Adept’s capabilities and supplements their goal of further capturing a share of the global food processing and handling market.
Many of the parts involved in Bosch’s manufacturing process are too small for present-day factory robots. So they have a two-pronged approach: learn, buy and partner from everyone and, if necessary, build their own robots. Their new home-built APAS robot is already being field tested in their factories for intricate handling and assembly work.
These four companies are each demonstrating the kinds of efforts required to make the transition successfully, but other companies are making moves that are noteworthy for this discussion:
Although Heartland hasn’t officially announced a launch date, they have reserved a large booth at next January’s Automate 2013 in Chicago. A media launch date will be earlier, but the Automate show will be a place for a lot of would-be-users and buyers to see the new bots in action.
Meka Robotics, Willow Garage, and SRI just announced a new startup competitor: Redwood Robotics. Their website says they will be offering a new generation of robot arms that are simple to program, inexpensive (“in the $10,000 range,” says CEO Aaron Edsinger), and safe to operate alongside people. These three partners bring a lot of robotic talent to the table and are a formidable competitor for Heartland.
|Foxconn assembly workers. Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters/File
Robots like C3PO of Star Wars fame are getting closer every day!