Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Rethink Robotics' Baxter and Universal Robots UR5 and UR10 Succeeding

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Low-cost robots are marching into Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).
Much has been said about the need to augment the skills and increase the productivity of small factory workers by using robotic assistants called co-robots. Europe funded an SME (Small and Medium-sized Enterprise) public-private consortium to determine the needs and develop robotic solutions for those needs. In America, venture and privately-funded Rethink Robotics whose founder and CTO is ex-MIT Professor and co-founder of iRobot Rodney Brooks has been doing the same thing: developing an adaptive manufacturing robot that can work safely alongside human workers. Brooks is devoted to - and an eloquent spokesman for - his mission of creating smarter, more adaptable, low-cost robotic solutions that can help manufacturers improve efficiency, increase productivity and reduce their need for offshoring.

Almost all of the big industrial robot makers have or are working on lightweight and human-friendly arms, but are not offering them at low cost, or with user-friendly training, or the plug and play features. In addition to them, there are other robot startups in the SME marketplace - and on the horizon - but none are as far along in their development and low cost as these two at-present privately-held companies: Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots.

Rethink Robotics' Baxter

Rethink Robotics' new Baxter robot is getting a software upgrade. Big deal? Actually, it is. When Rethink Robotics launched Baxter late in 2012, it was obvious that Baxter needed some improvements. Rodney Brooks promised those improvements incrementally over the next few months and year. Brooks' vision was to have a hardware platform frequently enhanced with new software and capabilities - and it is happening as promised and on schedule.

Rethink recently launched an academic version of Baxter with a Software Development Kit (SDK) enabling users to train the robot and share their programs with other Baxter owners. Although the SDK academic version is different than the production model, after a while, the concept of an open SDK and an Apple-like app store will be enabled across Rethink's whole product line.

Just the other day Rethink upgraded their operating system to V1.1 to make it easier to integrate existing factory machine synchronization, I/O and task sequencing and ordering systems into Baxter's repertoire of programs - a very neat and necessary feature. Now Baxter can integrate and connect with up to 9 digital ports to existing automation systems through signaling. This new update also enables users to coordinate actions across Baxter's two arms.

Baxters are being produced at a pace for sales of 500+ units in 2013.

Universal Robots UR5 and UR10 Robots

Danish Universal Robots (UR) has quickly built an extensive North American distributor network of 16 experienced robot integrator/distributors.

One of those new distributors, Scott Hendrickson, CEO of Olympus Controls, said: "The quality of new leads has been off the charts. Most of our existing clients are Fortune 500 companies, but now we’re able to better service small business owners on Main Street as well,” he says, attributing the growth to the cost and ease of use of the UR robot. “In typical robot solutions, you multiply the robot cost by three or more to get the end price due to safety guarding and expensive programming. None of this is necessary with the new Universal Robots.” Hendrickson went on to say: "We believe these new robots will soon cross the chasm between early adopters and mainstream users."

“A key selling point of our robots is that they are continuously upgraded”, said UR Sales Manager Kristian Hulgard. “Once purchased, our users can expect a steady stream of software upgrades giving them access to all the new features on the latest robots to leave the factory. This makes their investment future-proof.”

UR is building 100+ robots a month of which approximately 25-30% are for customers in the U.S. for 2013.

Both UR and Rethink are finding price acceptability and each have provided case studies of how their robots are being utilized.

Features Comparison

A Couple of Examples of How These Robots Are Being Used

Universal Robot picking and placing multi-sized
creams in Johnson & Johnson factory in Greece.
At a Johnson & Johnson factory in Greece, a UR5 is used on a production line where it performs repetitive pick and place tasks as a link between two parts of a production line.

The robot takes bottles of cream from one production line, and places them onto the packaging line. Flexibility is the key requirement because there are several different types of creams coming down the line, each positioned differently.

The Greek integrator/distributor, InnoPro Technologies, which sold and installed the robot, said that J&J engineers were 100% satisfied and have even given the robot a name.

Baxter picking and boxing plastic parts at
Rodon Group factory in Pennsylvania.
A Baxter robot has been deployed at the Rodon Group, a Hatfield, PA injection molder and is among the first plastics processors to deploy a Baxter robot. It is being used for repetitive tasks like picking up parts off a conveyor and placing them into boxes or onto a nearby packaging line.

The robot is being "trained" by the very people it is assisting. Because Baxter is oblivious to heat or noise, it can take on those “hard to fill” positions in noisy and un-airconditioned industrial circumstances.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Favorable jury verdict may offset flurry of bad publicity for Intuitive Surgical

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

UPDATED: 5-24-13 Jury finds Intuitive NOT GUILTY. Scroll to end to see details.

One of robotics' biggest stars, Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG), and their da Vinci robotic surgical systems, is receiving a lot of unfavorable media attention - including a 4-part "exposé" by MSNBC - because:
  1. A month-long suit alleging injuries tied to the robot surgery used in a 2008 procedure to remove a patient's prostrate claims that the surgeon was not adequately trained.
  2. A recent JAMA article showed that although the number of robotically assisted hysterectomy procedures is up, their effectiveness is the same as laparoscopic methods but their costs are about $2,000 higher per procedure.
  3. The FDA recently initiated a probe asking surgeons at numerous hospitals to identify complications with the da Vinci machines.
  4. Intuitive sends note out about a scissor instrument known as Hot Shears saying the instrument could develop small, invisible cracks, which can potentially cause a leak of electricity that can burn patients. It describes precautions to take before using the instrument but also says an additional message will be sent once a replacement instrument is available.
The trial - Taylor v. Intuitive Surgical, Superior Court, State of Washington, Kitsap County, 09-2-03136-5 - began mid April and is expected to last a month. In the opening statements on the first day of the trial, lawyers for both sides stated their cases:
PLAINTIFF: That Intuitive Surgical designed a watered down training program to make it easier for them to sell systems to hospitals thereby compromising surgical quality which, in this case, led to complications which caused the man to die. They further claim that the lack of training and steep learning curve caused mistakes which led to kidney failure, brain damage, permanent incontinence, the need to wear a colostomy bag, and ultimately, heart failure and death. 
DEFENDENT: That injuries suffered by the obese and medically-troubled patient occurred after the robotic systems was unplugged and not in use; the injuries happened after the robotic surgery was completed. That training, supervision and case selection warnings are and were adequate but in this case not heeded.
Since that time there have been stories from the courtroom suggesting that Intuitive targeted a category of urologists who have "basic or limited laparoscopic skills and who currently perform traditional prostate removals" as if that form of marketing was a bad thing.

Taking advantage of the notoriety of the court case are three class action suits alleging:
  1. One firm is investigating potential claims against the board of Intuitive because the FDA MAUDE database of adverse events involving medical procedures is "significantly understated in terms of da Vinci-related complications."
  2. Another class action suit has been filed alleging that officers and directors of Intuitive violated SEC provisions and issued materially false and misleading statements highlighting the purported safety and effectiveness of the da Vinci system, concealed at least 10 lawsuits, and therefore are responsible for artificially inflating stock prices during the class action period.
  3. A third class action suit has been filed almost identical to the one above.

In spite of all this, financial and stock results for Intuitive are doing okay. Intuitive's first quarter results showed surprisingly high profits and revenue. Intuitive narrowed their 2013 revenue projections slightly to account for possibly lower procedure rates for hysterectomies and the stock took drops at the end of February and mid-March and has held steady since then.

Intuitive has yet to present their defense in the court case and to the public. For example, the JAMA article said that robotically-assisted procedures cost $2,000 more than similar laparoscopic methods but the researchers who wrote the paper didn't reduce the $2,000 for the effects of reduced hospital stays and less post-recovery work which in many cases are said to save hospitals more than $2,000 per procedure.

UPDATE 5-6-2013:

As Intuitive begins to defend itself in the Taylor case, multiple witnesses testified that heart disease, not a failed robotic procedure, killed the patient. Further, Taylor's arteries were 50 to 90% blocked and he had bypass surgery in 2002. Another witness testified that Taylor's health risks prior to the prostate surgery - diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and his obesity (280# on a 5'8" frame) - ultimately caused his heart to stop.

UPDATE: 5-14-2-13:

Intuitive sends note out to customers about a scissor instrument known as Hot Shears saying the instrument could develop small, invisible cracks, which can potentially cause a leak of electricity that can burn patients. It describes precautions to take before using the instrument but also says an additional message will be sent once a replacement instrument is available.

Three additional law firms (Ryan & Maniskas, Rigrodsky and Long, and Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro) filed class action suits alleging that ISRG issued a series of false or misleading statements to investors and thereby failed to fully disclose to investors the financial impact of safety problems with its da Vinci Surgical System.

UPDATE: 5-19-2-13:

Since ISRG's stock took its initial two dives (at the end of February and again mid-March), most of the stock analysts have been saying that it's a good buy at the lower price. One analyst predicts an $800 price in a year or so. Looking at the chart above which compares Intuitive to the NASDAQ index which is up close to 15% YTD, the hits on Intuitive's stock can be seen more clearly as down 3% YTD and hasn't really recovered from the two hits.

Meantime, with no good news to counter the spate of negative news, two more law firms have joined in filing class action suits against Intuitive alleging the same as the others described earlier in this posting.

UPDATE: 5-21-2-13:

Lawyers concluded their closing arguments and the case went to the jury.
PLAINTIFF: Intuitive is to blame for injuries stemming from a 2008 robot-assisted prostate removal because of Intuitive's inadequate training which was streamlined and compromised by the company's agressive efforts to sell their robots. 
DEFENDENT: Intuitive's warnings to not use the da Vinci device for complicated procedures went unheeded by plaintiff's urologist and that person is responsible for plaintiff's injuries. During the course of the trial Intuitive said that the urologist knew the path he was on was unduly risky but proceeded nevertheless. It was also disclosed that the plaintiff had previously sued and settled claims again the urologist and the hospital but those documents and the settlement details were secret.
UPDATE: 5-24-2-13:

Jurors reached a 10-2 verdict in favor of Intuitive after the five-week trial.  Intuitive ownes no damages or any other fees.

The win may reduce the heat of the arguments by the many law firms filing class action suits about false claims by Intuitive regarding their financial performance and corresponding stock price. 

In after hours trading, as news of the verdict came out, the stock (NASDAQ:ISRG) rose to $498, a 5% gain for the day and night. 

Certainly the trial victory is a boon for Intuitive and it's legal team. But the many months of ill-worded negative headlines will take a while to overcome.

Friday, May 3, 2013

A conversation with Henri Seydoux

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Parrot's AR.Drone without styrofoam bumper guard (top) and with (bottom).
A growing business within Parrot S.A., (PARRO:EUROLIST B) is their AR.Drone line of products, parts and software. Their first quadcopter product was developed internally by (1) observing the $1 billion market in radio controlled helicopters, (2) seeing gamers interest in using their game devices to drive cars, planes and copters, and (3) the increasingly widespread use of MEMS inertial sensors and high-definition digital cameras in consumer products. These were the building blocks from which came the AR.Drone, a super successful quad-motored copter flown partially autonomously and also by an app on your iPhone or smart tablet. AR.Drones have been sold to an eager audience of global consumers 400,000 strong!

As an aside, part of the business plan for selling the AR.Drones is to also sell parts to repair the devices when they crash - an inevitable outcome of the adventure of flying them. Parrot has made buying replacement parts easy and provides visual tutorials on how to install replacement parts and make needed repairs. A bit like printer companies selling their own brand of paper and ink.
Henri Seydoux, Founder, Chairmen and CEO, Parrot SA.

I had a brief chat with Henri Seydoux, founder, chairman and CEO of Parrot S.A., who said that there are more innovations coming. The success of the AR.Drone and now the AR.Drone 2 has proven Henri's conviction that there is a large consumer market for this type of entertainment product and that there are other related high-potential markets on the horizon. But that's not all that's in store: Henri has a large cache (about €40 million) to invest in acquisitions to further his pursuit of innovations and products for this market, a market composed of any entertainment, consumer or professional use of drones (but not for defense, military or police activities).

Three recent acquisitions along those lines include senseFly, a Swiss start-up of a series of UASs for commercial survey, mapping and monitoring work; Pix4D, another Swiss start-up providing aerial image and 3D mapping processing software, and Varioptic, a provider of miniature cameras with adjustable lens offering autofocus and image stabilization solutions. 

Professional drones providing mapping and geographical information for surveying, construction, mining, agriculture, forestry, environmental observation and protection and town planning also fit Seydoux's vision. 

Henri says that there may be an overabundance of UAS vendors at present however he is confident that Parrot, with their extensive experience in mass production and product engineering will continue to be able to achieve low-cost affordable products, and will thus prevail as a market leader.