Monday, January 28, 2013

Automate and ProMat 2013: Crowds chose collaborative cage-free robots

Industrial Robots; Robot Arms; Cameras, Scanners and Vision Systems; Collaborative Cage-free Robots; Mobile Robots; Robot Operating Systems; Warehousing and Materials Handling; New Technologies, and Jobs
By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

There are fewer manufacturers of industrial robots than one might imagine: only a little more than 200 worldwide. Of these, less than 15 account for more than 60% of the industry's revenue. Thus, at Automate 2013, held in freezing-cold Chicago, KUKA, Fanuc, Staubli, Motoman and ABB all had huge display areas showing their uniquely-colored robots (Kuka = orange; Fanuc = bright yellow; Staubli = white and light yellow; Motoman = blue and white; and ABB = red). These industrial arms are able to carry big loads as was demonstrated by this showy barbell-pressing Fanuc robot transporting two very heavy train wheels and their axle from place to place.

Fanuc robot bench pressing train wheels
In addition to displaying robots in their own booths, colorful robot arms could be seen in many other much smaller cubicles. Integrators, gripper makers, end-of-arm tool makers and vision system providers all showed their products and systems working on robot arms from one of the big robot arm makers, the largest of this group being Schunk and Leoni.

Note that all of the companies mentioned are either European or Asian; that's where the industry is located even though all these companies have marketing and support offices in the U.S.

Cameras, Scanners and Vision Systems:

Despite the powerful presence of the major robot manufacturers, this year's Automate seemed all about integrating vision capabilities into robotic tasks. Camera and vision integrator companies were showing the various applications enabled by such visual additions to robotic technology. These included tools for inspecting for errors; identifying surface defects and missing features; identifying the shape and position of objects; measuring components for sorting and classification purposes; and systems to quickly read and verify markings on parts and labels.

In many other booths, bin and conveyor picking was displayed. Some showed vision systems being integrated with robots and special grippers to look into a randomly organized containers or conveyors and pick out and grab a desired item in an efficient sequence. ABB's PickVision is an example. Their video of a food-handling process [click the image at the right to see the video] demonstrates the system locating, stacking and packing pancakes. During his keynote address to the combined Automate and ProMat audience, Henrik Christensen noted that bin-picking didn't exist 10 years ago and is now just one of many examples of how new cameras, lasers, sensors and software are augmenting robots to new heights and applications. The paradigm was the smoothly-running Industrial Perception (IPI) robot choosing and grabbing randomly stacked boxes from the back of a truck and placing them on a conveyor or pallet. The 3D software and advanced spatial recognition algorithms integral to making the IPI robot work are continuing this progression of new developments breeding new applications.

IPI's robot consists of their new tool designed to grab cases off a truck or shelf, their use of various vision and lighting systems to "see in 3D" [what's out there], and their proprietary software to determine dimensions and exact locations. It then decides which is the safest and most expeditious package to pick, and, using an industrial arm grabs and then swivels around to place the box or package on a pallet or conveyor. It all works quickly and smoothly and seems logical and conceptually easy. But IPI has made a significant breakthrough in putting it all together and making it work seamlessly. To see the device at work unloading random sized cases off of a truck - (as can be seen in the video above from an IEEE/Spectrum posting - is an ingenious achievement yet simple combination of vision, data analysis, a creative gripper and an industrial strength robot arm.

Collaborative Cage-free Robots:

Two robot makers, Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots, have focused on selling to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and both had big crowds of interested prospects. Baxter, Rethink Robotics' new $22,000 two-armed robot, had the biggest assemblage of interested people followed closely by 8-year old Universal Robots, the Danish company displaying their very polished and similarly capable $34,000 robot arm.

Both companies offer new methods of training their robots: Baxter is taught via a graphical interface and direct manipulation of its arms; Universal offers a hybrid of the clunky industry-standard teaching pendant and a simple teaching-style point and click programming environment.

Comparing features beyond training is a bit difficult because Universal sells their robots as a single-arm device; their two-armed version, although similar to Baxter in appearance, is just a trade show demo. In defense of a single arm low-cost robot, one German research institute found that 86% of tasks expected of a healthcare/service robot could be accomplished with a single arm and a flat surface.

Transitioning from Industrial to Service Robots:

In fact, Universal Robots' two robots, UR5 and UR10 (5 kg and 10 kg respectively), are more comparable to the new and more expensive lightweight one-arm offerings from KUKA, Yaskawa Motoman and others that are making these new single- and dual-arm robots safe to work un-caged and alongside human workers. Rethink Robotics' Baxter is in a category all its own for the present because of price and capability. There is no cheaper two-armed robot and there is nothing with the capabilities and flexibility that Baxter offers (particularly down the road as they improve it). But competition is coming from creditable players - perhaps as soon as Automate 2014.

The major robot makers appear to be slow in transitioning into this next generation marketplace, perhaps because they are just barely keeping up with the current one which is expanding in double digits all over the world. This may be one explanation for Universal Robots low-cost-of-entry robot having so much success. Or perhaps because they aren't ready to move into the lower-priced arena just yet. Major robot makers are transitioning from single task to multiple tasks, from single arm to dual arms, in large factories and auto plants. The next round of advances, whenever it happens, appears to be the merging of safety, mobility, vision, flexibility and dexterity that enable new collaborative cage-free robots to assist humans in various short-run tasks including assembly, transport, tending other machines, etc.

Robot Operating System (ROS) Industrial:

I noted a growing use of ROS and ROS-Industrial for the development and integration of add-on systems and equipment to existing robots. Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) showed their ROS-Industrial software and libraries and how its use is growing amongst robot manufacturers and integrators. Nearby, an integrator was showing three robots (a Fanuc, Kuka and ABB) all working together - collaborating - on a packaging line. In the example they were all sharing a single control box - a remarkable software achievement. And Gumstix, the $100 computer on a chip, announced support for ROS — and introduced a bootable microSD card with ROS preloaded.

Mobile Platforms:

Another crowd pleaser was Adept and their new mobility platform, Lynx. Adept's line of robots were shown on the recent CBS News 60 Minutes segment about robots and jobs and included an interview with Adept's CEO John Dulchinos. Similar to the platform iRobot developed with InTouch Health, Adept's Lynx doesn't require floor or ceiling markings for it to safely guide itself from place to place. It uses natural feature navigation and is designed to work in existing, peopled environments such as warehouses, factories and offices. It has an innovative blue wheel on the side that communicates status and intent of the robot to surrounding people. Lynx can haul 130 pounds for up to 13 hours at up to 4 mph before needing a recharge. It can be programmed by voice prompts or through a tablet.

Warehousing and Materials Handling:

Across the hallway in the ProMat material handling show held in conjunction with Automate, the major vendors tended not to call their products robots; they referred to them as being automatic or autonomous material handling devices and systems. The booths for Dematic, Swisslog, Egemin, Raymond, Seegrid, Murata, Beumer, Elettric80 and Schaefer were as prominent in ProMat as the big gun robot makers were at Automate. Dematic's booth in particular had overhead screens - like at a basketball arena -- as well as hundreds of feet of moving conveyers, elevators, bins and cases. Perhaps they needed to specially promote at ProMat in order to distinguish their products from Symbotic's very similar ones which debuted last year. Symbotic didn't exhibit at either Automate or ProMat.

It's All About Jobs and New Tech: 

Henrik Christensen's keynote address discussed his efforts in the halls of Congress and at the White House to convince lawmakers that automation and job growth were not mutually exclusive. “It’s about how to leverage and empower the workforce, not remove it,” he said. “Once we bring manufacturing here, we also have more control over jobs in the associated supply chain.” He went on to attack the recent CBS News 60 Minute segment which showed many robotic advancements but also implied that robots take jobs, as being "a piece of crappy journalism."

In that same CBS 60-Minutes piece, one of the authors of a study about jobs and the future, said, “Even if offshore manufacturing returns to the U.S., most of the jobs will go to robots.” The International Federation of Robotics, in a press conference the day after Christensen's talk, revealed the contents of a new study it had commissioned. That report indicated a number of trends: (1) the economy always picks up much faster than job growth; (2) for every job created in manufacturing, there are 1.3 jobs created in other areas because of it; and (3) that investments in technology lead to unemployment in the short term, but a much higher job comeback just 3-5 years out.

Further, noting that bin-picking wasn't even possible a decade ago, Christensen suggested that within the next 10 years autonomous cars may be able to serve as driverless parcel carriers and that un-piloted drones may ship packages coast to coast.

He endorsed the concept currently being used by mobile robot company Aethon which provides a service to manually override their robots when the robot signals for help. Generalizing this service to others, Christensen suggested that robots could be serviced and directed by their manufacturer through the cloud as needed so that the customer wouldn't have to be involved with robot maintenance.

All in all the buzz of both shows was that (1) there were more buyers and strong leads than last year and (2) that investment in capital purchases for new robots and warehousing systems, which had been put off for years because of the recession, was now back on and companies were reflecting that with their orders and comments.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Thoughts about RoboBusiness 2012

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

I've read a wide range of reports and single-topic reviews about the presentations and about some of the exhibitors at last November's RoboBusiness Leadership Summit held in Pittsburgh. I didn't feel that any of those reports truly captured what I saw and thought. I was there for the whole thing. So what did I see and what do I think? What stuck in my mind?

First, I'm appreciative for having been able to attend RoboBusiness. The get-together of 400 souls with a common interest in the business of robotics was certainly a good place to meet people, many of whom I've only corresponded with. Many came up to me after seeing my name tag and were very glowing in their comments about my two websites (The Robot Report and it's blog Everything-Robotic). That was fun, somewhat embarrassing, yet nice to hear.

But back to RoboBusiness -- the depth of content left something to be desired. As did the constant schedule of short-duration presentations and events -- they left no time to mingle, chat privately, have chance encounters -- without missing something (in case there was something to miss), and have dinner(s).

Dan Kara, CEO Electra Studios
Dan Kara's keynote presentation - and his speaker/topic introductions throughout the conference - were more informative than any of the presentations themselves.  Dan talks fast but his words are clear. He can cover a lot of territory in a short period all the while keeping people's attention. Dan was the previous CEO of RoboBusiness but has moved on to found a start-up (Electra Studios) providing educational and research robotics products and services integrated with new-tech media tutorials and instructional guides (all presently in stealth mode).

I think the Giant Eagle Distribution Center field trip first thing on day one started me off somewhat jaded. It was a terrible showcase for Seegrid's robots, the sponsor of the tour. The robots appeared to need time-consuming manual entry (as well as barcoded data) to get started. Then, after the robotic lifts took the pallets to where they were to be stored, they just dropped them off; they didn't put them away. A human worker, driving a radio-dispatched forklift, had to do that. Each unmanned drop-off saved a minute and a half of a lift operator's time but it probably cost that in setup time.

Seegrid's vision-guided pallet truck
Although Seegrid had four robots at the center, two were out of sight, one was idle, and the other took a very long time to instruct it about what it had aboard and where it was to go with its load. Yet all the while there were 30-year old high-bay robotic lifts that were working away picking up and storing skids of materials in 700' long aisles and 50' floor-to-ceiling racks. Both old and new tech were shown and the employes preferred the old -- I asked them and that's what they said. I'm a fan of Seegrid; they have some very innovative vision-guided driverless industrial-grade pallet trucks and tractors. But, at the present time, they don't lift their load up to put it away in a rack - a temporary but serious drawback. I've heard rumors that Seegrid is planning to divest itself of the construction of the lifts, tugs and tractors and leave that to Raymond, a long-established global provider of lift trucks, and forklifts, and focus instead on their guidance and material handling systems. Great idea if the rumors are true. A win-win for both companies.

RoboBusiness 2012 seemed somewhat like that warehouse tour and also like the political debates of the 2012 election cycle (without the spirited rhetoric): a bit shallow with important topics either glossed over or missed entirely.

Mobi Mobil Robot
by Bossa Nova Robotics
Bossa Nova Robotics' ballbot mobile platform Mobi launch was heavily featured at the conference when it really shouldn't have been given that much attention. But hey, they were a paying sponsor and it was a neat presentation with a sleek and stylish ball-bot. As I see it, BN Robotics is attempting to do what iRobot, Adept and other mobile robot platform builders are already doing: providing a platform and hoping that buyers will have mobile applications which they can make work on their mobile platform. What we saw was BN's fundraising pitch; not really their business plan. BN is trying to use a CMU patent to product engineer it down to a consumer product - a feat that they are good at doing. This iteration of the ballbot platform - for sale to academics - is an attempt to make money while trying to find a more commercial niche that can make their company profitable. Selling the platform for $20,000 is ridiculously high. Many companies have far better mobile bases for similar or less cost. The ballbot concept for home use is temporarily flawed and needs more development time. For their presentation at RoboBusiness they were required to invent and deploy a kick-stand emergency shut-off, a klunky but regulation-satisfying solution. When the folks at BN told me about their new ballbot platform, the idea was that they could provide the platform for $300. That price point would enable problem solvers to experiment with BN's platform and somebody else's arm(s) because the platform cost would be insignificant. When they hit that price point their Mobi mobile robot will be an exciting addition to the robotics industry. From Bossa Nova's point of view it was a successful presentation, conference and result. They've sold out their production capability for the year!

Aldo Zini, CEO, Aethon
and John Krolicki, VP, University
of Pittsburgh Medical Center
User experience is the missing element in many robotic start-up companies. I'm not referring to the sophistication built into the hardware or software; I'm talking about the user finding value and making use of that value in his daily work. At RoboBusiness much of the talk was from the perspective of the robot developer; not the robot user. One exception was the talk by John Krolicki, the VP of Facilities and Support Services, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center describing the successful use of the Aethon TUGs, and the presentation on the subject by Aethon CEO Aldo Zini. This, to me, is what the business of robotics is all about: applying technology to solve real problems - and using the metrics of the business involved to attest to its validity and value. Thus Krolicki was the best guest speaker for the audience. He showed, using metrics relevant to his operations, that Aethon's TUGs and MedEx systems effected good results for the hospital.

Aethon's line of TUG mobile robots
Aethon has received much press over recent months including a spot on CBS News 60-Minutes. Their revenue has surged and, in 2012, they deployed 77 TUG robots which have made 84,000 deliveries and traveled 17,000 miles doing so.

Perhaps my disappointment at RoboBusiness was that Krolicki's and Zini's presentations, and the whole afternoon spent on Quality of Life Robotics, were the exceptions and not the norm for the conference.

Which type of sessions do robotic business leaders want to attend? It seems to me they weren't asked that question; rather, the sponsors dictated the agenda. Which brings up the question whether RoboBusiness is there to sell exhibition space and newsletter subscriptions or inform; to have brief presentations about robotic products or about real-world needs that can be solved with robotics; to advertise sizzle and magic or stick to the title of the conference: Leadership Summit. The majority of the sessions left me wondering. The financial crisis is over and EH Publishing, the parent company and sponsor of RoboBusiness, is expanding their events and subscription magazine, a weekly online report costing $1,000 per year. The sponsors, including EH Publishing, appeared to be the answer. RoboBusiness was too much of a sales forum and not enough of a Leadership Summit.

Monday, January 14, 2013

CBS News 60 Minutes Provides New Definition of Robots

by Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report
CBS News Reporter Steve Kroft interviews Rodney Brooks at ReThink Robotics.
Click on the image above to see the segment.
UPDATE March 6: Many reacted to the 60 Minutes segment as it related to the subject of whether robotics takes away or adds jobs. Abstracts and links are shown at the end of this article.

On Sunday, January 13, CBS News 60 Minutes reported on robots. Their focal point was jobs and the changing nature of work. As a backdrop to their comments they showed Tessla Motors' robots retooling themselves, Adept's robots stuffing boxes with packaged lettuce and also assembling Braun shavers, watched ReThink Robots slowly pick and place an item, saw Aethon's tugs in action in hospital corridors and had a brief glimpse of InTouch Health's RP-VITA remote presence medical robot and a more descriptive view of the VGo Communications VGo robot at school and for home care. In the process the reporter, Steve Kroft, discussed a new definition of robots and robotics in sharp disagreement from the definitions posed by the International Federation of Robots:
Steve Kroft said, "The broad universal definition is a machine that can perform the job of a human. The machine can be mobile or stationary, hardware or software."
This is different than the robotic industry's most recent tentative definition of service robots which, in short, says the following:
A robot is an actuated mechanism programmable in two or more axes with a degree of autonomy, moving within its environment, to perform intended tasks. Autonomy in this context means the ability to perform intended tasks based on current state and sensing, without human intervention.
A robot has to have at least two degrees of freedom plus autonomy. A fully autonous car (2 degrees of freedom (DoF); steering and transmission) would qualify for a mobile robot as would 3D printers. But a washing machine (1 axis; 1 DoF), airline or other kiosk, or adaptive cruise control (all which could be considered as 1 DoF) would not fall under the category of robots. Thus Kroft artfully crafted his own definition to fit what he and his camera crews saw as "robotic."

Regarding jobs and robots, Kroft relied on the comments of two MIT professors (Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee) who jointly wrote a book entitled "Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy" in which they attempt to answer:
  • Why has median income stopped rising in the US? 
  • Why is the share of population that is working falling so rapidly? 
  • Why are our economy and society becoming more unequal? 
A popular explanation is that the root cause underlying these symptoms is technological stagnation -- a slowdown in the kinds of ideas and inventions that bring progress and prosperity. But the two authors suggest a very different explanation. They show that there's been no stagnation in technology -- in fact, the digital revolution is accelerating at an exponential rate. They say in the 60 Minutes interview:
Technology is always creating jobs. It's always destroying jobs. But right now the pace is accelerating. It's faster we think than ever before in history. So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to. 
The changes are coming so quickly it's been difficult for workers to retrain themselves and for entrepreneurs to figure out where the next opportunities may be. 
The catalyst is computer learning or artificial intelligence -- the ability to feed massive amounts of data into supercomputers and program them to teach themselves and improve their performance. It's how Apple was able to create Siri, the iPhone robot, and Google its self-driving car. 
We now have robots gathering intelligence and fighting wars, and robot computers trading stocks on Wall Street. 
It's all part of a massive high tech industry that's contributed enormous productivity and wealth to the American economy but surprisingly little in the way of employment. We absolutely are creating new jobs, new companies, and entirely new industries these days. The scale and the pace of creation is astonishing. 
What these companies are not doing, though, is hiring a ton of people to help them with their work. Because they don't need that many people to work in these incredibly large and influential companies. To make that concrete, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google are now all public companies. Combined, they have something close to $1 trillion in market capitalization. Together, the four of them employ fewer than 150,000 people, and that's less than the number of new entrants into the American workforce every month and the number of employees that work for GE.
I'd love to open this up as a discussion because the IFR's definition, still tentative as far as I know, doesn't cover the growing marketplace of service robot-like devices that perform human tasks. CBS News 60 Minutes did this with their new definition and with their report.

The producers at CBS News 60 Minutes also provided additional web and video extras that you are sure to find of interest:
UPDATE 3/6/2013:
  • In an article entitled "Robot Makers Spread Global Gospel of Automation," John Markoff from the NY Times reported speaker and crowd reaction to the 60 Minutes segment. He cited evidence that indicated that "while automation may transform the work force and eliminate certain jobs, it also creates new kinds of jobs that are generally better paying and that require higher-skilled workers." Markoff went on to quote the International Federation of Robotics' findings in a study they commissioned on the subject: "The robotics industry will directly and indirectly create from 1.9 million to 3.5 million jobs globally by 2020."
  • The cover story in Wired Magazine's December, 2012 issue was "Better Than Human: Why Robots Will - And Must - Take Our Jobs." With photos of robots and Jimmy Fallon, this entertaining look at the future of work includes an interesting chart of existing and new human and robot jobs. A good and thoughtful read.
  • Joanne Pransky wrote an op-ed piece called: "60 Minutes Program Alarms Public With Inaccurate Report on Robotics" which criticizes the 60 Minutes segment as shoddy and misleading.
  • The most colorful rebuttal of the segment came from Drew Greenblatt, CEO of Marlin Wire. In a press briefing at a trade show in Chicago Greenblatt said (as reported in AutomationWorld), “Automation creates jobs in the United States. Marlin Steel is hiring people because our robots make us more productive, so we are price competitive with China. Our quality is consistent and superior, and we ship much faster. Our mechanical engineers can design material handling baskets more creatively since we can make more precise parts. Our employees have gone 1,492 days without a safety incident because robots can do the more difficult jobs while our employees can focus on growing the business. American manufacturing’s embrace of robotics will ensure a new manufacturing renaissance in this country.”
  • In an op-ed piece appearing in CNN Money written by Fortune Magazine writer Stanley Bing humorously asks: "There's no way an automaton could do my job. Is there?" He examines whether a robot could replace the human tasks he is required to perform as part of his job.

Monday, January 7, 2013

$100 million P-P-P suggestion for healthcare robotics

Hector, the eldercare robot, from the EU-funded Companionable Project.

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

As the robotics industry continues to grow, enters new industries, and provides new applications, strategic focus is necessary or the overall industry will develop haphazardly and spread out around the world. It is important to remember that the first industrial robot was designed and developed in America but almost all industrial robots today are manufactured offshore and the profits from their sale go to offshore companies.

In the EU and Korea they are stimulating the robotics industry to fulfill national strategic goals such as keeping and growing homeland industry AND solving a particular set of problems, eg, how to help educate Korean children to learn a second language, English, using robots to supplement teachers. Another example of this type of strategic funding is the EU-funded SME project which also had twin goals: keep manufacturers from going offshore and provide robotic assistance to small and medium-sized enterprises, a new marketplace which, with robotic automation, will be able to better compete and remain at home.

The US doesn't have anything similar but it should because robotics is an industry that has passed us by once and could continue that way again without guidance. $100 million in focused stimulation money could go a long way toward re-establishing a leadership role. The American tradition of entrepreneurial funding and product development just can't work on a project of the size and scope that I am suggesting. And the alternative, just let nature take it's course, will likely lead to a similar movement offshore as occurred with industrial robot - where the major manufacturers are located in Europe and Japan.

It seems to me that the next breakthrough marketplaces for robotics will be:
  • SMEs (robot workers and co-workers in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises)
  • Medical and healthcare (nursing assistance, surgeon augmentation, operating room assistance, therapeutic assistance, home care, elder care, remote presence, hospital automation)
  • Agriculture (robotically automated planting, weeding, harvesting, sorting and packaging)
  • Aerial surveillance and applications
  • Embedded systems within our cars, trucks and taxis
Scene from the movie "Robot and Frank"
Of these, the one most beneficial to humanity is in the area of healthcare, thus, $100 million focused on stimulating breakthroughs in that industry might be best spent on developing an eldercare robot similar to the one in the movie 'Robot and Frank.' Along that path, that robot could then be turned into a consumer services product for basic home care and, down the road, perhaps even child care. Below is a short list of activities such a robot could provide people wishing to live at home independently:
  • Cognitive stimulation and assistance
  • Therapy assistance
  • Monitor health (blood pressure, pulse, temperature, etc.)
  • Collaboratively work with smart home environments and a remote control center
  • Provide mobility assistance
  • Keeps and reminds of daily calendar
  • Reminds and delivers medicines, meals and other items
  • Stores and locates lost items
  • Can communicate when an emergency is detected
  • Can communicate when a security breach is detected
  • Can enable visual communication with family members and care givers
  • Can coordinate other robotic devices such as floor cleaners, lawn mowers, etc.
  • Can assist with basic household and yard chores
Imagine someone with legislative connections spearheading an effort to provide a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) to design, develop, product engineer, build, market and distribute a cost-efficient robotic device for home health and elder care AND doing so before the competition beats us to the punch. The PPP would include at least one major medical devices conglomerate, a consumer products company, a few quality-of-life university labs, a couple of healthcare insurance systems, representatives from Medicare and the FDA, and an experienced healthcare/hospital/homecare business management leadership team. And they would all agree to share (patent and otherwise) in the research and development and give back when their efforts become profitable.

Many global government-funded PPP projects are further along the research path -- such as Hector, the eldercare robot pictured above -- but none have yet to be turned into commercially available healthcare devices. $100 million will go a long way toward catching up and, hopefully, leading the pack.

Many consumer product companies are encouraging development of add-on robotic devices to provide consumer benefits, eg, Bosch is attempting to provide hamper to hamper service for dirty clothes (sorting, washing, drying, folding). But they miss the bigger picture in the process.

By solving the problems involved in providing unobtrusive but comprehensive eldercare, the US-funded PPP will also be solving many of these same consumer product issues, thus, the consumer products partner can make transitional products. The reason for the insurance company partners is because they are footing eldercare bills at present and would welcome cost-reducing robotic solutions once they were available. They can afford to be first-adopters and pay the premium price of the initial products.

Therefore, if the project is timely, well-managed, goal-driven and has the right team players, an industry could be born and stay in America and spread to other areas of robotic consumer products as well.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2012 Robo-Stox Wrap-up

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

If an enterprising firm set up a mutual fund reflecting the worldwide robotics industry, they might choose to separate their picks into three segments, which might look something like this:
  1. Industrial Robot Manufacturers
  2. Service Robot Makers of security, defense and space robots
  3. Service Robot Makers of robots for all other purposes
Although I am neither a broker nor an analyst, I do track the business of robotics and the performance of those companies within the industry publicly traded on various global stock exchanges. In fact, I started compiling and tracking the stocks at the end of 2007, and set up a comparative index, Robo-Stox™, because no brokerage or mutual fund firm had such a fund or funds or index. I began this just in time to watch the stocks tank in 2008 and 2009 and recover in 2010 through 2012. What follows is a wrap-up of what I found of particular interest in 2012.

As can be seen from this 5-year Robo-Stox™ chart, not all stocks have fully recovered their 2007 year-end highs; the average stock hasn't... but many have succeeded in full recovery, particularly in the non-industrial sector. And, as can be seen from the Big-4 chart below, the biggest industrial robot manufacturers did quite well in 2012.

Industrial robot manufacturers

Japanese industrial robot manufacturers did well for the year: all but 2 were up Y-T-D and the group beat the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) 7.3% gain for the year. More than half of the stocks in the index have recovered from their 2008 lows.

The Big Four robot makers (ABB (NYSE:ABB), Yaskawa Motoman (TYO:6506), Fanuc (TYO:6954) and KUKA (ETR:KU2)) did particularly well and all had double digit gains compared to the DJIA.

KUKA's stock was up 22% for the year - the standout performer of the group. KUKA AG has invested heavily in facilities and marketing in China and their long-term prospects appear to be good.

Canadian, US and European industrial robot makers did similar to Japan  - slightly beating the DJIA's 7.3% gain for the year with about half having returned to their 2007 highs. I don't know what happened in Korea; almost all of their stocks had a wobbly year with end-of-year prices near the lows for the year.

Service Robot Manufacturers

Healthcare and medical:

Service robot companies, particularly high-tech medical/surgical stocks had a very mixed year.
  • MAKO Surgical (NASDAQ:MAKO) had two serious slides during the year taking the stock from a high of $44 to it's present low of $12 - all because of missed analyst expectations. 
  • Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG) (of da Vinci Surgical Robot fame) also had a roller coaster year with a high of $588, a low of $440, and ended literally where it began the year. 
Few companies beat the NASDAQ, which was up 15.9% for the year; but here are a few standouts:
  • Accuray (NASDAQ:ARAY), whose robotic radiation therapy Cyberknife did quite well during the year, was up 42% from $4.43 to $6.31 at year-end.
  • Swisslog Holdings's stock, traded on the Swiss Stock Exchange (SLOG:SW), was up more than 45% for the year. Their pill-making and dispensing systems and hospital tugs are doing well and their warehousing robots are also benefiting from the trend to automate distribution centers.
  • Israel's Mazor Robotics (MZOR:IT) and their spine implant system did well too - up from $110 at the beginning of the year to $229 at year's end!

Military, defense and security:

The cutback in US military spending has had a mixed effect on service robot makers and appears to depend on how broadly they have been able to adapt their products to global security and defense needs:
  • iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT), similar to MAKO Surgical (NASDAQ:MAKO), also had two serious stock drops during the year - both caused by the company having to restate expectations because of government cutbacks even though revenues from the military represent only 1/3 of gross revenues.
  • QinetiQ Group PLC (QQ/:LN), on the other hand, a British company, gets 100% of it's revenue from governmental sources. It's stock was up more than 35% for the year as were it's profits.
  • Many conglomerates have subsidiaries that produce unmanned air, sea and land robots (and their support systems) for defense and security governmental agencies. This is a global market with global players. Elbit Systems (NASDAQ:ESLT), an Israeli company, is a case in point. They have a big UAV operation but that unit's revenues are just a small portion of those from the overal company, thus their stock is certainly not a robotics pure play. Elbit's stock, which had a long slide and a short recovery during 2012, broke even for the year.
Bottom line
  • Industrial robotic providers had a good year
  • Military robot makers saw governmental cutbacks reflected in their stock prices and are widening their sales and transforming their products to sell to municipal governments 
  • Surgical and hospital service robot suppliers had a mixed year, the former held up by patents and FDA approvals, the latter (eg, Swisslog (SLOG:SW) did quite well.
  • Most other new-tech robotic companies are privately or equity-fund held, hence, no idea as to their results other than news about contracts received. For example, venture funded Liquid Robotics, during 2012, established a new joint venture with oil conglomerate Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB) and a new naval division for governmental and Navy contracts. Wouldn't you like to own a few shares of that company?
2012 was a good year for many robotics companies and 2013 seems like it will continue the momentum of equal parts finding robotic solutions to workplace needs but also crowd-funded wild ideas and other digressions.

Also see Filling a need... or feeding a diversion for more stock info.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Filling a need... or feeding a diversion

Today's robotics industry could use some strategic guidance,
 particularly in the area of healthcare.

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report 

It is clear to me that the next big markets for robotics are:
  • SMEs (robot workers and co-workers in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises)
  • Medical and healthcare (nursing assistance, surgeon augmentation, operating room assistance, therapeutic assistance, home care, remote presence, hospital automation)
  • Agriculture (robotically automated planting, weeding, harvesting, sorting and packaging)
  • Embedded systems within our cars, trucks and taxis
But there are hold-ups:
  • SMEs - cost, safety, training, vision, grasping and manipulation
  • Health care - safety, acceptance, cost, task training, jobs resistance, communication
  • Agriculture - low-cost immigrant labor, slow acceptance, lack of government support
  • Lack of political commitment and public-private consortiums to solve strategic problems

Until a significant breakthrough in these new markets, the biggest market for robots will continue to be the industrial sector - factories and massive processing facilities. That group is poised to see double-digit growth for many years to come as global competition continues to force companies to automate, improve quality, lower spoilage and reduce costs.

Furthermore, large-scale research and pure science robotics projects sponsored by the likes of NASA, DARPA, the EU and the governments of Japan and Korea, and capital-intensive industries, are diminishing in scope and dollars and being replaced by garage businesses full of toys, hobbyist inventions and incremental and transitional products. This change is happening because of enhanced interest in (and understanding of) "smart" consumer products, lower-cost sensor availability, more capable and cheaper CPUs, 3D printers, more flexible and open control software, government preoccupation with other more important priorities, and increased global competitive pressures to reduce cost and increase quality and productivity.

It is these very same low-cost sensors, processors and cameras enabling the auto companies to accelerate their embedded systems into fully functional self-driving cars (see example below). 

[NOTE: Companies mentioned without a stock symbol are privately held.]

Transitional Products

Kindle is the poster child of a transitional product. Although a much appreciated holiday gift for the last couple of years, Kindles have already peaked and are being replaced by more multi-functional devices (iPads, smartphones and tablets). 2012 shipments were only 14.9 million units - a 36% drop from 2011. One research firm predicted that 2013 sales will see another 36% drop. Meanwhile tablets and smartphones grew 27.1% in 2012 and are gearing up for a banner 2013.

People appear willing to pay more to get the extra features of an iPad or tablet. Thus e-readers were a device for a particular moment in time that has been replaced by a newer technology. This process is analogous to secretaries being replaced by word processing machines and then by PCs, WordStar and Microsoft Word. 

Jeff Bezos used the Kindle to cultivate a different way for readers to buy more books from Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN). It became a "need" when people saw that the Kindle was light, easy to use, could fit in a purse, could carry a whole library of e-books, worked in bright sunlight as well as at night and didn't cost too much.

Bottom line: The Kindle isn't that different from most other tech devices -- transitional products with something cheaper and more capable just around the bend. 

In robotics, the same kind of transitional development is occurring almost daily. Really great inventions, silly ones, temporary solutions, and diversions are all happening simultaneously, seemingly without moderation, guidance or direction. And most are transitional (or at least incremental) with better solutions in the labs or courtrooms waiting for breakthroughs. 

Temporary, Incremental and Transitional Solutions

CyPhyWorks new EASE drone.
A great example of a temporary solution is CyPhy Works' new pair of drones (EASE and PARC): timely, innovative and providing solutions for specific needs with a transitional solution: a tether.

CyPhy Works began with funding to research methods to view and analyze bridges and other potential security targets but soon concluded that conventional drones couldn't handle the payload of cameras and instruments, sensor processing, security, and flight duration needed to get the job done. 
“The biggest problem with [surveillance] robots today is they send them inside a building, they go down the stairs, no communications; they go around the corner, no comms. You go into a bunker and it’s got some rebar and you don’t get comms,” CEO Helen Greiner says.   
“The problems are power and communications. It all comes down to that." 
"When you have a flying vehicle of a size, a diameter that can fit through a door comfortably, it will last for, you know, 20 minutes. And then the customers will want to carry something else, and that something else requires power, and it weighs the robot down and it ends up lasting 15 minutes, and somebody else puts something on and it ends up lasting 10 minutes, and none of it’s acceptable. You would have to be small and fly for at least a few hours to make it useful. With the filament, basically you get high-definition video images all the time, and then it has the added advantages in that it can’t be jammed, it can’t be spoofed, it can’t be intercepted. And it has unlimited power.”
Hence the tether, a clever adaption to today's limitations enabling the drones to fly for as long as necessary, stream high-def images and sensor data to the base station for processing (instead of onboard), and with security assured (from the device at least) to the base station. [As an aside, the tether is enhanced by having the spooler autonomously controlled by the drone instead of the base station thereby reducing the chances for entanglement. Should it happen to snag or break, the vehicle can use its battery power to fly back to its point of origin.]

An example of an incremental product is the slow but steady movement toward autonomous cars. First there was adaptive cruise control (2001) which automatically adjusts your speed depending on the car in front. Next came active braking (2004), which could detect if a crash was imminent and apply the brakes if necessary. This was followed by lane assist (2008) and self parking systems. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S Class by Daimler AG (ETR:DAI), will be the first car capable of fully driving itself (under certain minor limitations) by adding new rear-end sensors, pedestrian awareness and driver alertness cameras. The system will rely on 26 separate sensors, including radar and stereo cameras, to monitor traffic and pedestrians up to 650 feet in front. "Steering Assist" will steer in stop-and-start situations and at speeds up to 124 mph; it will slow entering curves but stay in its lane until the driver takes over. [This is just the beginning folks!]

Other incremental and transitionally useful consumer products include CaddyTrek's follow-the-golfer carts, Zodiac Marine & Pool's Polaris pool cleaners, Husqvarna's lawn mower (STO:HUSQ-B) and iRobot's (NASDAQ:IRBT) family of floor care products - all examples of early-adopter products for the tech savvy offering some level of utility for their stated tasks. 3D printers also fall into this category with a range of products from $300 on up to $1 million. The stocks of these companies have been highlighted by many of the analysts in recent months as great buys: Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) (which just acquired competitor Objet), 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) and Arcam AB (STO:ARCM). All three stocks have doubled in the last year. Alas, MakerBot, the do-it-yourself (DIY) phenom, is still privately held.

Really Great Inventions

The da Vinci surgical system by Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG), Kiva's warehouse robots and goods-to-man concept (Kiva was acquired by Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) earlier this year), and Liquid Robotic's wave gliders are present-day robotics stars. Each is unique and disruptive to the way things were done and each is just a precursor to how things will be in the near future.

Less well known inventions are the inroads the larger industrial robot makers have been making with lightweight single and dual-armed robots capable of working alongside their human counterparts - without a protective barrier between them. Yaskawa Electric (TYO:6506), ABB (NYSE:ABB), KUKA (ETR:KU2), ST Robotics and Universal Robots all have new products making waves in the industry. Rethink Robotics' Baxter is the newest player in this trend toward robotic co-workers.

Toys, Kits and Academic Training Bots

WowWee's Femsapien, Parrot's AR.Drone quadcopter and Aldebaran's Nao.
Toys like Parrot's (EPA:PARRO) AR.Drone quadcopter (a present-day global hit) and WowWee's line of robotic toys and pets (Robosapien, Roboraptor, etc.) have sold millions of units. Aldebaran's Nao robots have a large following in high schools and colleges partly because of their enticing humanoid form, their involvement in robotic soccer games, and their high functionality for low cost.

But there are also toys and other robotic items that whither because the developer didn't want to be diverted into a business when all he/she wanted was to build something fresh and fun. Many of the tele-presence devices getting crowd-funding in recent months are fun-tech gimmick products with no long-term business plan or even interest in having one.

Don't get me wrong. Robotic toys are likely to be the precursor to more useful robotic inventions - perhaps from the same inventors. But there is definitely an explosion of this kind of robotic toy - SWIVL, Autom, Sphero, Romo and Botiful being examples.

Within academia, industrial robot companies have donated and made available low-cost robots and teacher's guides for high schools, junior colleges, tech schools and universities for years to help stimulate STEM careers and robotics in particular. Staubli's Robot House at SCI-Arc, a leading architectural school in Southern California, is an example. But in recent years, more humanoid and open source robots are becoming affordable. Also helping speed up development are open source software resources such as Willow Garage's ROS.

Healthcare Robotics

In a few recent articles in robotics and healthcare media, including one by the editor of Robotics Review, there has been a call for leadership - for national direction in strategic areas of the robotics industry, particularly in the area of healthcare. Henrik Christensen and the team involved with the publication and presentation of "A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: from Internet to Robotics" began the process and it has slowly gained momentum.

Early last year President Obama established the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Initiative which included a section for robotics. The initiative was funded with $500 million, 10% earmarked for robotics. The scope of his directive was to insure that critical (defense and security) products were manufactured by Americans in America. Tom Clancy's new book "Threat Vector" shows just how critical this can be in his fictional account of a virus planted on a foreign-made hard drive component installed in an American-made disk integrated into a high-security American defense installation.

Other countries - the EU, Korea and Japan in particular - have public-private consortiums working on difficult problems for which solutions are in the national interest, hence the reason why they are funded. Other than the American Manufacturing Initiative, American doesn't have any such strategically-funded national interest projects (except military and defense).

To my way of thinking, advancements in healthcare shouldn't be held up or otherwise thwarted because of patents, research funding or other corporate or personal (selfish) rationalizations. Patient care should be paramount, profits and profitability secondary. But that's not the way it is at present nor will it change without political intervention.

I'd like to suggest a change similar to what Henry Ford did when confronted with a similar situation 100 years ago.
In the early years of automobile development, a group owned the rights to a two-cycle gasoline engine patent. By controlling this patent, they were able to monopolize the industry and force car manufacturers to adhere to their demands or risk a lawsuit. In 1911, Henry Ford won a challenge to the patent. The result was that the patent became virtually worthless and a new association - which would eventually become the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association - was formed. The new association instituted a cross-licensing agreement among all U.S. auto manufacturers: although each company would develop technology and file patents, those patents were shared openly and without the exchange of money between all the manufacturers. By the time the U.S. entered WWII, 92 Ford patents and 515 patents from other companies were being shared between these manufacturers, without any exchange of money - or lawsuits. The best braking system was shared by all as was the best window wiper, and many, many other inventions passed freely from one car company to the others. The result was that the user - the car driver - benefitted with the safest and best cars, no matter the brand - and the auto industry flourished as a result.
If an association like the MVMA - with a charismatic and visible leader - were to be launched in the medical robotics arena, perhaps the wonderful new inventions we've all read about would become available quicker and with less constraints, patents, and other hold-ups. Patients - you and I - care-givers and healthcare systems would all share in the benefits and lives saved which would come from focused development speed-ups in the robotics-related healthcare marketplace.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Why I'm Not Going to CES 2013

I've gone a few years in a row to Las Vegas CES and found it VERY interesting for trends in everything "smart," digital and embedded, and not so interesting in terms of robotics. The auto companies have GINORMOUS displays of their in-car infotainment and embedded systems for the future and that is worth the time and effort to go. The keynotes are okay and the press "events" for all the companies are barely worth the fight to get in (and it is a fight).

Often CES is a resource for funding - with companies showing concepts and prototypes. This is particularly the case with robotics and quality of life devices. The most poignant showings will be in the area of quality of life products - from devices that work with autistic kids to smart devices that monitor your vital signs and text or email your doctor when alarms are sounded. All are seeking funding and/or orders; none really ready for prime time as a consumer health product.

Overall CES is predictable: serious competition is on the horizon for Apple on many fronts and iRobot on all their home cleaning products; in-car smart systems are where the crowds will be; robotic toys and gimmicks will appear and then later in the year will disappear; "smart" systems will be the buzzword from appliances to phones, tablets and PCs; and the vision systems people will be showing thinner and smarter TVs and monitors. 

But this year I'm taking a break and leaving the reporting to others.

Here's what I wrote in January about CES 2012. Check the story and see how many companies are still in the running. Click on the image to link to the article.

PS: To exorcise the gambler in me during CES this year I'll be in the sun and warmth (and casinos) of Atlantis in the Bahamas.