AI News, Collaborative Robotics
Advancements in robotic and control technology now make it possible for industrial robots to expand beyond their traditional manufacturing and automation roles, to support whole new classes of applications, and by extension, new markets.
Perhaps the best example of this trend is the development and use of collaborative robots, human scale systems that are easy to set up and program, are capable of being used by workers with a wide range of qualification levels, can support multiple types of automation, and which can work safely in close proximity to human workers. The collaborative robotics segment is growing rapidly as new suppliers, technologies, and investors enter the market.
A number of representative collaborative robotics companies are highlighted, along with the features and capabilities that distinguish them. Features of Collaborative Robots Business Drivers Political Social Drivers Key Market Data Representative Collaborative Robotics Suppliers Advancements in robotic and control technology now make it possible for industrial robots to expand beyond their traditional manufacturing and automation roles, to support whole new classes of applications, and by extension, new markets.
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“And that is that a robot can work three shifts, or 24 hours a day.” By the early 1960s, Devol’s 2,000-pound Unimate arm, the first industrial robot, found a home on the floor of General Motors’
The unit (pictured right) could grip, weld, drill, and spray, and the hydraulic arm’s path was programmed using a magnetic drum hard drive.
Fast-forward 50 years, and the landscape of modern robotics — which we define as a programmable cyber-physical machine, excluding auto and aerial drones — has changed significantly.
Robots in factories have typically been large, caged devices that perform repetitive, dangerous work in lieu of humans. As the smartphone revolution and development of autonomous vehicles have driven down costs of off-the-shelf hardware, smaller, more dexterous robots have come onto the factory floor.
Historically, the robotics sector at large has been plagued by a number of problems: Below, we explore how companies are using cobots to begin tackling these technological challenges and how the emergence of cobots is changing the economics of manufacturing, e-commerce, agriculture, and food service. As robots proliferated into factories worldwide, vision systems allowing robots to identify and safely navigate around objects were largely an afterthought. Many robots perform repeatable tasks in highly structured environments, so safety measures have typically consisted of a cage to prevent humans from getting dangerously close to a bot.
Cobots seem to have found a sweet spot within smaller factory operations where humans are still involved, tending to 3D printers, manufacturing medical devices, or completing more cognitive tasks like warehouse order picking.
But distinguishing what an object is and deciding how to move it is still a bottleneck.” Teaching robots to map and manipulate objects is a difficult task. But a number of research developments out of Google’s DeepMind and UC Berkeley have demonstrated success with one-shot learning, where the cobots can recognize new objects without a vast trove of training data.
Robots can easily complete repetitive, predictable tasks. But for less structured tasks, such as picking out an item from a random assortment, there are far more unique scenarios where special handling must be calculated by an algorithm.
or, perhaps more usefully, ‘hard for people to describe to computers.’” With machine learning tools more broadly accessible, startups are developing computer vision to support a new wave of robotics. Below are demos from Veo Robotics (left) and Osaro (right) displaying the vision systems for industrial pick-and-sort functions.
Increased safety and ability means the systems will be in greater demand, which will likely further attract startups to design more advanced computer vision, creating a positive feedback loop.
“It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult-level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.”
Dexterity presents a major challenge in robotics. However, hardware improvements are making cobots more effective. Cheaper and better cobot hardware is allowing startups to focus on computer vision and tailoring software for specialized tasks.
One big reason could be labor costs rising worldwide. Because of economic growth, wages in industrialized countries have soared. In China, for example, average wages have more than doubled since 2006, and the country is no longer considered a destination for low-cost outsourcing.
For all of these reasons, cobot makers are selling more units at lower prices than ever before. This isn’t just corporate innovation theater by tech giants either — even smaller factories are buying into the cobot wave.
On a January 2018 earnings call, Teradyne‘s CFO Gregory Beecher noted the high growth of its cobot business and revealed that about 50% of its customers are small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). The cobot market is still going through a land-grab moment.
The president of Universal Robots, which has found success selling to European automakers, noted, “Probably only 10 percent of our target market really knows about collaborative robots, so there is 90 percent potential that [has] gone untapped.” Selling manufacturers on cobots’
Estimates say that roughly 22% of skilled manufacturing laborers in the US (or 2.7M workers) are set to retire in the next decade — and the industry will be about 2 million workers short if trends continue.
Last year, the average warehouse ceiling height was up 21% compared to 2001, while spending for new warehouse construction hit a peak in October 2017, with $2.7B spent on construction in that month alone.
Amazon, for example, recently revealed how it is investing in a variety of new robotics, while JD.com recently unveiled its 100,000 sq ft facility that processes up to 200,000 orders per day — with only 4 workers.
Cobots startups are also targeting food service, which is presently seeing an all-time low unemployment rate of 6%. In an industry known for high turnover, restaurants are investing in robots not to get rid of workers, but because they can’t find enough.
New investments in cobot technologies may even lead to a large-scale productivity boost. The ways companies integrate the tech — as well as the policies governments enact to regulate it in this next economic phase — will have profound implications on whether we see our current and future cobots more as collaborators that lower costs and improve opportunities for workers, or as the physical manifestation of worker automation and displacement.
Robots uncaged How a new generation of sophisticated robots is changing business
In contemplating the sweeping changes that a new generation of robots promises to bring to organizations, this article focuses on two emerging robot categories: a type of industrial robot known as a collaborative robot, or cobot, that can work alongside people, augmenting their abilities rather than replacing them;
For instance, some robots can be trained simply by moving them around to teach them where they are expected to go or to perform different tasks such as metal fabrication or molding.14 Fanuc’s cloud-connected industrial robots use a form of machine learning called reinforcement learning to teach themselves tasks.15 Some new-generation robots possess remarkable dexterity.
Kindred is a robotics start-up whose first product combines computer vision, machine learning, and human supervision to help warehouse staff sort items for shipment more quickly and accurately.16 Improved learning and dexterity mean that robots are becoming more versatile.
For instance, a global logistics company is using the same collaborative robots to perform tasks such as assembly, fabrication, and packaging at its warehouses.17 A marine robot can patrol oceans to detect illegal vessel activity while simultaneously monitoring environmental variables such as ocean currents and temperatures.18 Many robots are now capable of autonomous motion;
A diverse array of collaborative robots—whether mobile or stationary—are entering the workforce to operate alongside humans, helping rather than replacing them.20 Some robots are capable of sophisticated human interaction thanks to computer vision, speech recognition, and natural language processing.
Jibo, a personal robot intended for home entertainment and automation, uses face recognition to personalize its interactions.21 Banks are trialing robots to interact and communicate with customers in branches to provide basic information and answer customer queries.22 Basic laws of economics are driving growing demand for robots: As price falls, demand rises.
The average selling price of traditional industrial robots is declining by over 4 percent per year, and analysts expect prices of cobots to decline by about 3 percent annually.23 The cost of most types of service robots is projected to decline by between 2 and 9 percent each year as well.24 Not all of the new robots are being deployed to support humans, of course.
Rising labor costs in some regions are making robots an attractive alternative to workers: One analysis found that the payback period for an investment in a welding robot in the Chinese automotive industry, for instance, was 5.3 years in 2010 but on track to fall to just 1.3 years in 2017.
Other businesses, particularly in the automotive industry, are employing collaborative robots to take over physically demanding tasks, allowing aging workers to focus on less taxing work.29 As robots’ capabilities improve, the benefits they offer go beyond better/faster/cheaper.
Ultimately, robotic facilities in Europe and the United States could reduce the time from product design to delivery.30 Another sportswear brand is using robots and other technologies to slash the time it takes to manufacture and deliver customized shoes.31 Service robots can not only improve efficiency by taking on tasks that human workers used to do—they have the potential to enhance customer service and satisfaction and boost sales.
Silicon Valley-based Fellow Robots makes mobile robots that can provide multilingual customer service and automated inventory tracking in retail locations.32 Robot maker Savioke says it has more than 70 installations completed or in progress in hotels, offices, logistics facilities, and luxury high-rise apartments.
The company cites several hotel customers that it says are reporting improved guest and worker satisfaction, increased occupancy, and a surge in sales of sundries, which can now be delivered to guest rooms automatically, meaning guests with the munchies needn’t face a human in the middle of the night.33 The Gongbei Port of Entry, the busy main border crossing between Macau and mainland China, has deployed 50 mobile robots capable of answering 3,000 common questions in 28 languages.
they are used to perform tasks such as metal fabrication, packaging, testing and inspection, and parts assembly, loading and unloading.35 But analysts project cobot sales to grow nearly five times as fast as traditional robots in unit terms through 2025.
These may include technological risks connected to cybersecurity and privacy, operational risks involving business continuity and workplace safety, legal and regulatory risks entailing compliance in the face of evolving regulations and standards, and financial risks associated with any capital-intensive mass rollout of robots.
Man and machine: The new collaborative workplace of the future
Since 2010, vehicle production in the United States has increased by an average of about 16 percent annually because of industrial robots, according to Bastian Solutions.
They're a harbinger of what's now happening at car companies: assigning mundane or physically exerting tasks, such as material handling or welding, to robotic workers, which free up human employees to think about how to personalize and customize cars for customers, something consumers are increasingly demanding.
Manufacturing precisely configured vehicles where customers choose details like the trim of the dash or the caps of tire valves is not a task for large industrial robots, which have trouble adapting to an age of mass customization in part because they constantly have to be reprogrammed.
Gaining Robotics Advantage
Companies should look for areas of the business where robotics might be able to add value by cutting costs, enhancing productivity, improving performance, reducing risk, and addressing skill shortages or workforce variability.
For instance, the da Vinci Surgical System allows doctors to perform surgery using robotics and 3D vision systems.3 In mining, automated drilling and haulage can reduce the need for workers in remote locations, increase safety, and improve asset utilization.
For instance, building robot-enhanced plants closer to local markets may make sense as a way to accelerate response times and to fine-tune products to local tastes.
Tired of the production delays and rising supply chain costs of overseas production, the company plans to use robots and automation to offset higher labor costs.4 In Germany, Adidas is pursuing a similarly forward-looking strategy by opening a factory that will quickly produce customized products using automation.5 Think and act now.
And because it can take a long time to integrate automation into operations, management needs to act now to develop a point of view, test and pilot robotic applications, and invest in infrastructure—including laying the foundation for a digital supply chain on the factory floor.
Once a Kiva customer, Amazon acquired the robot maker to improve the productivity and margins of its network of warehouses and fulfillment centers.6 The move helped Amazon maintain its low costs and expand its rapid delivery capabilities.
Foxconn, the maker of Apple’s iPhones, recognized an emerging skill gap among its workers in certain areas, including robotics expertise—a difficulty that threatened to become increasingly problematic as the firm continued to introduce more and more robots into its processes.
Companies that make or use robotics should work with communities, educators, local governments, and policymakers on issues related to safety, liability, social impact, and funding for education and training.
For example, Google, Uber, Lyft, Volvo, and Ford created the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets in hopes of formulating a federal standard for autonomous vehicles in the US.8 Beyond helping to craft policy for robots that operate in public spaces, companies should participate in setting safety requirements at work, especially as cobots become more prevalent.
Collectively, the guidelines outlined above can help companies approach robotics in a strategic, disciplined, and pragmatic way—and improve their odds of achieving long-term, sustainable robotics advantage.
- On Tuesday, February 18, 2020
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