Friday, June 18, 2010

AUTOMATICA 2010: 475,000 sq ft of Industrial Robotics

Every year the robotics industry comes together in one of two big biannual trade shows - one in Germany and the other in Japan. Vendors show their wares in all aspects of robotics and automation: vision systems, sensors, software, servos, integrators, designers, engineering companies, grippers, hands, and all the ancillary businesses, etc. They also show research-in-progress and new technologies not yet in production. In the two outside pictures above one can see KUKA's big fixed arms and their newer, lighter, safer, uncaged arm. The center picture is of a set of integrated welding robots.

Unlike the 2009 iREX show in Japan, this year's German show, AUTOMATICA 2010, was predominantly focused on industrial automation with few non-manufacturing robot and research displayed. Mostly, the show emphasized industrial robotics and their movement toward lighter and safer, with less power consumption and more flexible and efficient software. Their focus on recovery, with little or no discussion about the emerging trend toward non-manufacturing service robots, seemed very narrow to me as did their insistence on proprietary control software.

The show covered over 475,000 sq ft of exhibition space. More than 30,000 engineers, automation executives and roboticists from over 110 countries attended. There were three days of technical sessions presented by ISR (International Symposium on Robotics) and Robotik (German Conference on Robotics) about various technical aspect of robotics.

I wanted to attend AUTOMATICA 2010 to participate in a press conference by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) and to listen to a panel of industry executives discussing the future of robotics. (That's me on the right at the IFR press conference.) In actuality, one could say that the panel was really about the future of industrial automation and the recovery from the devastating crash of the economy and the auto and robotics industries in 2009. It did not reflect all the other aspects of the robotics industry: space, defense, healthcare, mobility, non-manufacturing and service robotics.

The IFR presented a series of charts detailing the immensity of the crash but focused on the positive side: orders are returning and the auto industry is recovering and restructuring with the consequence that the robotics industry will soon feel the benefits of that recovery. As the auto industry becomes more flexible,  uses new materials, and makes other changes to lower costs and increase quality, their assembly lines and robots must also be more flexible and capable, hence upgrades and additional robots.

The final few charts - shown on the web as interactive world maps - were from a study commissioned by the IFR to reflect robot density, ie, the penetration of robotic automation in key manufacturing industries and countries. By comparing the number of robots per 10,000 employees involved in auto industry-related manufacturing to density outside of the auto industry, and then country by country, it could be clearly seen that robot automation had a sizable way to go to fully penetrate the auto industry, particularly in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Thus the focus by the CEOs on capturing those emerging markets.

The panel discussing the "future of robotics," was composed of the industry CEOs shown to the right.  They discussed their near-term goals which appeared to be to recover and reestablish themselves firmly in the automotive industry and to increase their penetration rates worldwide. A somewhat short-sighted viewpoint in my opinion in that they didn't even mention service and non-manufacturing robots.

I interviewed KUKA's CEO, Manfred Gundel, and asked him about their entering the non-manufacturing service robotics business to which he responded that the company was focused on recovering from the disaster of 2009 and increasing their percentage of robotic involvement in the automotive and supporting industries, particularly in emerging countries.  He didn't mention or respond to my questions about applications in healthcare (according to their annual report, KUKA has inroads into x-raying and also radiotherapy) or entertainment (the 4-D simulator at Disney World is a KUKA product).  Further, their movement toward "sensitive" robots (robots that interacted with humans) would be a slow process stretching many years into the future. This is in direct contrast to KUKA's annual report which says that they are working with DLR to develop an entirely new line of robots: lightweight with cognitive capabilities - and two such robots are already working in an auto plant doing rear-axle assembly.  I asked about controllers and other robot training devices and he pointed me to their very complicated portable controller - a far cry from the simplicity of an iPad.

Company Observations:
Nevertheless there were many incremental enhancements at the show. Two-armed robots that perform complex tasks independently or cooperatively - from different manufacturers - most visibly Yaskawa's Motoman - were displayed and it was a big discussion point that Daimler had begun to replace some older single-arm systems with two-armed ones.
Many versions of the delta (parallel) robot were shown. Their high speed and ease of use made for good show displays and were also beginning to penetrate the food processing market; not just the packaging and case handling side of the business.  A few manufacturers were showing versions of their flex-pickers as being able to be washed down and, in the case of Adept, US Dept. of Agriculture approved for meat and poultry processing. Right after AUTOMATICA 2010, Adept announced their acquisition of MobileRobots and their plans to integrate mobility into their line of robotic products. 
At the session where the six finalists for the invention and entrepreneurship award discussed their entries, one could see the increment evolution of technological enhancements pushing forward the efficiencies of robotics, particularly the winning entry by Alexander Verl who developed inline measurement robots which enabled car companies to replace their fixed arrays of sensors and cameras with flexible and fewer robotic ones.  He sold his company and invention to KUKA but many other manufacturers have licensed versions of what has turned out to be a very important enhancement to the inspection/QC process.
ALSTOM Inspection Robots for the process and power industry were built to be highly compact and miniaturized thereby enabling fitting into small spaces and being able to work while the systems remain online (or at least shorten the downtime).
RMT Robotics showed their ADAM™ mobile robot system enabling autonomous delivery and manipulation of products from station to station. The big player in the field of pick and pack, Kiva Systems, was not at the show.  Coincidentally, the mobile robot platform used by RMT Robotics and their ADAM™ system was provided by MobileRobots (which was just acquired by Adept).
And Butterfly Haptics displayed their entry of magnetic levitation haptic interfaces. Haptics of all types were a big thing at the show, many vendors showing different concepts, including the German Space Agency's MIRO surgical interface.
Research Observations:
The major EU research facilities were displaying various forms of work-in-progress to help industrial manufacturers more easily train, stabilize noise, see better, interpret what they see better and grip more efficiently - all facets of flexible industrial robotics.

Profactor, an Austrian research and technology group, was displaying what they called an intuitively trainable 3D object recognition system. They were also displaying iRob, a 3D picker that recognizes different sizes and shapes thus providing a major benefit in that there is no need to presort and arrange the parts fed to the system.

VDMA Robotic + Automation and Fraunhofer IPA, under the thesis that automation is the prerequisite for "green products," and that automation technology is considered a consumer of resources in itself thus the need for saving energy. A special exhibition drawing attention to "green" was the cable robot IPAnema. It can play a key role in the assembly of large-scale solar electricity systems, for example, in obtaining 'clean' electricity from desert regions like at the new 100MW facility being developed in Saudi Arabia. The interesting thing about the IPAnema system was the robotically-controlled use of lines/cables to lift and move very large solar panels. The exhibit had a working model with lateral as well as vertical and horizontal motion - precision-controlled. Fascinating technology.
I also visited Munich and the show to get insight into what was new, what was being featured, what people were talking about, and where the crowds went. I broke my camera (but there was a shopping center nearby with a camera store), wore out my back and feet, drank a lot of alcohol-free beer (very tasty and lo-cal), and barely made it through all the halls.

I attended press conferences, receptions, awards banquets and technical sessions in addition to spending hours talking with exhibitors. And, in my attempt to be a photographer as well as reporter, I produced a slideshow of my photos and video clips which, I hope, will give you a pictorial view of the color and scope of the show.

Almost all of my conversations were upbeat. Everyone acknowledged that the industrial sector of the robotics industry had come to a standstill with layoffs and idle robots. Many of the stalled systems were down because of inflexible control software - or the difficulty in finding qualified people to program these older machines.  But they were also aware that as the auto industry rejiggers itself to be more flexible and profitable, the robotics industry has to keep pace. And the new products shown at AUTOMATICA 2010 were keeping pace: they were lighter, more human-safe, flexible and green. When I talked with the research people from Fraunhofer IPA, DLR and at the EUROP booths, their focus was on expanding capabilities, enhancing software, making training easier, and enabling safer human-robot interaction.

Nevertheless, last year's Japanese show, iREX 2009, presented a more comprehensive and balanced exhibition of all aspects of robotics - industrial as well as service robotics, and research-in-progress. iREX2009 was definitely more well-rounded and far-sighted. It presented current trends in service robotics and pie-in-the-sky research projects as well as industrial robotics making the show more attractive to a larger crowd (100,000+ vs 30,000+).

On a personal note, I was disturbed to see that although many robot manufacturers have American offices for sales and integration, they are not American-owned; their robots are not manufactured in the U.S. Very few American companies displayed their wares at AUTOMATICA 2010, fewer even than at iREX 2009.  To me, this is a very troubling trend.