Saturday, May 31, 2014

Industrial robot makers set goals to become Service Robotics providers

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

"The future of automation lies in direct cooperation between humans and robots. In order for a robot to be able to work safely with humans, a whole new robot generation is required: the machines must be sensitive and compliant." -- Dr. Albrecht Hoene, KUKA Labs

All over the world of manufacturing, fenceless applications of robots and humans working together are enabling entirely new possibilities in modern factory settings. In small and medium-sized shops, plug and play easily-programmable robots are making inroads helping production workers use these new co-bots to offload some of their less-skilled tasks thereby freeing themselves to do more productive work. Workshops in collaborative robotics are springing up and industrial trade shows are featuring transition products into the world of service and collaborative robotics.

Volatile markets, product diversity, multiple variants and shorter product lifecycles mean that production must adapt quickly to new conditions, i.e. it must be versatile. Those new conditions have been given the term "Industry 4.0" in Europe and "Smart" or "Advanced Manufacturing" in the U.S. In many cases, these terms mean a move away from rigid full automation to flexible work-sharing between humans and robot.
"Using the robot as a production assistant makes production more versatile than ever before and enables entirely new concepts in manufacturing."
Industry 4.0 and Advanced Manufacturing are gaining momentum on many fronts. DARPA is investing in Military-service-affiliated Manufacturing Demonstration Facilities that will provide a lasting, shared resource to provide the manufacturing community with greater access to open manufacturing and research. These facilities will:
  • Serve as repositories of focused manufacturing knowledge and infrastructure
  • Independently demonstrate designs, manufacturing processes, process models and manufactured products
  • Curate and assess manufacturing models, qualification schema and material/processing properties data
In America, the Obama Administration is pushing Advanced Manufacturing on many fronts. Their new institutions are patterned after the successful Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. In fact, a team from the Fraunhofer IPA visited the US last year and met with and described their formula to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and consulted with the Advanced Manufacturing and Robotics and Cyber-Physical Systems directors -- all of which led to the Obama Administration's "Proposal to Establish a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation," NNMI, and this has led further to the launch of four new automation and manufacturing technology centers in the U.S. so far this year.

Major robot manufacturers see the writing on the wall and have developed (or are in the process of developing) roadmaps to transition to these new markets. Many will be showing their efforts at AUTOMATICA 2014 in AUTOMATICA's special focus this year on Service Robotics and SMEs.

AUTOMATICA 2014, being held next week in Munich, offers an opportunity to explore Industry 4.0 and Advanced Manufacturing, along with viewing first-hand the big robot manufacturers plans to move into the Service Robots arena in one big robotics and automation trade show and conference. I'll be there walking the floors, listening to exhibitors, and gathering information. Will you?

Are there any big ideas [about robotics] the mainstream is still missing?”

By Frank Tobe, Editor, The Robot Report

A The Robot Report reader asked a question that addresses a subject I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about — “are there any big ideas you think the mainstream is still missing [about robotics]?” 

When PCs became available in the early '90's, key software that people wanted was also available and could only be operated on PCs: 

  • Wordstar - for word processing - think MS Word
  • VisiCalc - for spreadsheets - think Excel
  • dBase - for relational databases - think Access or mySQL
These three softwares drove sales of PCs into unforeseen marketplaces and caused major disruption: 
  • Execs could type their own correspondence quicker than dealing through a secretary or pool thereby eliminating the need for that occupation. 
  • Everybody at work and at home could benefit by having columns of numbers added and cross-checked. Fewer bookkeepers were needed and calculator sales went down.
  • The concept of “relational” was never before understood as it was when you could instantly find something using a “key” linking multiple databases together to "find" your information instead of serially processing until you hit it. 
Rodney Brooks, of Rethink Robotics, iRobot and MIT fame, has been preaching that if you provide a cheap enough plug and play robot to small shops and factories, the workers themselves will find uses for them doing the drudge work they don’t like to do thereby making them more likely to be more productive doing the things they do like to do. Because of all the worldwide media attention in the last few years, including the financial media, business people are beginning to grasp Rod’s message. And, as occurred in the ’90’s, once they understand the concepts, they can visualize how they can use them and then they become willing to buy. 

I see that happening now in labs, small shops and medium-sized businesses around the world. In business, it's becomming common knowledge that robotic assistance is needed to keep jobs, increase productivity and lower overall costs - manna for executives everywhere. 

Furthermore, I see movement from devices (appliances, tools, cars) to smart devices and then to interconnected smart devices and finally to fully autonomous robotic-like devices. This will require new definitions of what a robot is. Robotic-like devices already exist in many fields (finance, diagnostics, etc.). Progress is being held up by limitations in the software that it takes to perform artificial intelligence. But that field is progressing at an accelerating pace and being commercialized as rapidly (e.g., Stanford’s Andrew Ng is now chief scientist running Baidu’s artificial intelligence research labs in Sunnyvale and Beijing). 

The remainder of this decade has so many disruptive moments in store for it: 

  • The FAA’s regs on UAS and how that will play out in first responder situations and other applications
  • AI breakthroughs speeding up all the other developments 
  • Smart devices becoming robotic-like (appliances, cars, etc.) 
  • New marketplaces for robots (e.g., agriculture, construction, architecture, surveying, small shops and factories, search and rescue, healthcare, etc.) 
One can barely contemplate the disruption happening from 2020 on!