Robot Accessorizing Leads to New Applications

April 27, 2012

Just like any outfit can be spruced up with new accessories or any car customized with add-on features, so can robot technology take on new applications as it’s accessorized for custom-tailored solutions. The following article takes a look at how new tooling and other accessories are impacting the robotic industry.

Changing, machining, compensating: current trends in robot accessories

In dealing with industrial robot efficiency, cycle rate and process reliability largely depend on their front ends, the grippers and other tools and also from the effectors’ interfaces to the robot arm. Robot accessories have a great influence on the robot’s performance, flexibility and fields of application. The latest developments in quick-change systems, driven tools, compensation units and power sensors show that the potentials of modern accessory components are enormous. Experts assume that their importance for handling, assembly and manufacturing will continuously increase.

Read the full article here. What instances of robotic accessorizing do you see leading the way to change and new applications?


RIA to Announce First Certified Robot Integrators on May 14

April 24, 2012

RIA will announce the first group of Certified Robot Integrators on May 14, 2012. These integrators have gone through a rigorous audit to confirm that they meet the requirements of the new Certified Robot Integrator designation. The program, which was launched in January at the Robotics Industry Forum in Orlando, has received tremendous interest from integrators and end users alike.

“We are thrilled at the high-level of interest in our new program and look forward to announcing our first group of certified integrators very soon,” said Jeff Burnstein, President of RIA. “Our Robotics Online website will have the news first,” Burnstein noted.

Click for more details on the Certified Robot Integrator Program.

Originally posted on Robotics Online.


At the Crossroads of Vision and Robotics

April 18, 2012

Independently, the robotics industry and the vision industry have been making landmark progress in developing technology. At the crossroads where they meet, the vision guided robot (VGR), engineers are making use of the best of both worlds to push the envelope. Players in the robotics field, from integrators to manufacturers, are now starting to more commonly use vision technology, including 3D.

Acceptance, Convergence, Certification Drive Vision Guided Robotics (VGR)

by Winn Hardin, Contributing Editor – AIA

In short, the world finally “gets” VGR technology, but automation industries aren’t sitting still. VGR developers and trade associations are making preparations for the next step in the industrial automation revolution by merging the vision and robotic technologies into a single solution, owned by a single vendor, and by developing certification programs that touch on both technologies, giving customers confidence in the suppliers when it comes to fielding their first VGR solution.

What started with 2D vision guidance has progressed to 3D vision guidance for tracking moving, singulated parts on a conveyor and similar applications. And 3D vision is even more critical for new application areas, such as service robotics, which are even more challenging than industrial robotic applications because they tend to be outdoors in uncontrolled environments.

Traditionally, using machine vision to identify a product’s location in 2D or 3D space and then guiding a robot to the object has been the domain of the system’s integrator. However, as vision and robot technologies have become easier to use and more widely accepted, more robot companies are either taking machine vision technology in-house for easier integration or developing partnerships that will give integrators and customers a consistent design environment.

Read the full article here at Vision Online. What ways do you see vision technology and robotics intersecting?


Ancient Robotic History 101

April 17, 2012

We spend a lot of time looking ahead into the future of robots, but sometimes you don’t know where you’re going until you look back on where you’ve been. In honor of National Robotics Week, Tech World highlighted ten influential robots — some of which maybe you’ve never heard of.

10 most influential robots in history

by Elizabeth Fish

1738: The Duck

French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson created a number of autonomous robots in his time, but The Duck is one of his more revered works.

The mechanical duck had over 400 different parts, which isn’t too surprising considering what it could do. It could flap its wings, and it could eat, digest, and subsequently defecate. That’s a pretty impressive robot!

How Caucanson managed to make the robot digest and defecate by installing various compartments to chemically decompose the grain. Only now, 274 years later, do we see modern-day robots with the similar abilities, such as Ecobot – although Ecobot is purely one big digestive system, unlike The Duck, which performs other fun “tasks”.

Unfortunately, nobody knows what happened to the Digesting Duck. There is, however, a museum in Grenoble that has a replica on display, made by a clock-maker.

Read more about the unknown history of robotics here. Are there any other robotic milestones that you feel should be included in this list?


Sensor Screen Offers Flexibility for Robot Safety

April 12, 2012

When working in an environment with heavy, complicated machinery, workers must take great care not to stumble into any hazardous situations. There are many different ways to make sure that your factory floor is safe for robots and people, and there are many different technologies out there that can help ensure the well-being of your employees. Here’s just one example of safety technology from RIA member Banner Engineering:

Flexible Safety Solution
By Mike Carlson

Due to the wide range of hazards present in any industrial plant, facility managers need safety solutions that are cost-effective and flexible. Safety light screens provide a flexible safeguarding solution with versatile mounting options, numerous cascading capabilities, and broad applications suitability.

Safety light screens (or curtains) are optoelectronic devices that can detect the presence of opaque objects, such as a hand, arm, or foot, upon entering the sensing field. The emitter/receiver pair is comprised of two basic components, an LED array, which emits infrared light beams, and a phototransistor array that detects the corresponding beams. The emitter modulates the light at a specified frequency and “code” that the phototransistors detect, allowing the internal logic to accept only that particular pulse of light and to ignore signals from external light sources. This precludes factory floor ambient light from affecting the performance of the safety light screen.

Read the rest of the article at InTech here. What are some of the procedures you use to keep safety a priority at your company?

The RIA offers several resources for maintaining safety in your work environment. Check out some of our classes and conferences based off the ANSI/RIA R15.06-1999 Robot Safety Standard or look into organizing in-house training at your own facility on the R15.06 Standard or on risk assessment.


How Robots Create Jobs

April 9, 2012

by Adil Shafi , President, ADVENOVATION, Inc.

Originally posted 04/04/2012 on Robotics Online.

No army can stop an idea whose time has come ~ Victor Hugo

In 2011, the International Federation of Robotics commissioned a report on how robots create jobs. http://www.ifr.org/robots-create-jobs/. The findings report that, “One million industrial robots currently in operation have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs… A growth in robot use over the next five years will result in the creation of one million high quality jobs around the world.”

Further, the market research firm Metra Martech wrote, “In world terms three to five million jobs would not exist if automation and robotics had not been developed to enable cost effective production of millions of electronic products from Phones to PlayStations.” The report actually covers several markets in the automotive, electronics, food and beverage, plastics, chemicals and pharmaceutical industries and focuses on countries like Brazil, China, Germany, Japan, Republic of Korea and USA. The complete report is available at http://www.ifr.org/uploads/media/Metra_Martech_Study_on_robots_02.pdf.

It is sometimes said in the media that robots take jobs away. Actually the opposite is true. The companies that hire and thrive and have cars in their parking lots are the ones that have embraced automation and used robots to create financial efficiencies and created jobs. This fact has been marginalized in the past by such opinion makers as organized labor and “headline seeking” media. Fortunately, after the recent recession, both are now realizing that this myth is busted and are routinely embracing the long term benefits of robots.

So, how do robots create jobs? Before we review the math and dynamics of robot jobs, let’s look at a similar perception problem that occurred one hundred years ago.

A One Hundred Year Old Example and Similar Lessons

How Robots Create JobsConsider the horse driven cart business before the advent of cars (or the “iron horse” as a car was often called). In those days there were many jobs that revolved around horses: their breeding, feeding, grooming and related peripherals: saddles, stirrups, stables, etc. When the “iron horse” came about, these jobs were threatened. Inevitably those linked to the horse related professions resisted the advent of cars and cried foul about the ethics, morality or appropriateness of an iron horse in society. But, as Victor Hugo said, “no army can stop an idea whose time has come”.

People saw the benefits of cars: the comfort of the ride, the range of travel and the speed. The benefits over horses were irrefutable. It was not obvious at first but cars needed roads and that need created jobs. The manufacture of cars created jobs. And no one epitomized the benefits of mass manufacturing to create jobs and enhance the betterment of the masses than Henry Ford.

How Robots Create Jobs It is true that there was a disruption to the status quo and a transition; some of which was planned by people and some of which was not. But cars were here to stay and they have revolutionized jobs, society and our standards and ways of living for the past one hundred years.

In a similar way, robots or “iron workers” have created a similar dynamic in recent decades. It is true that many “manual hands work” related jobs were threatened by the efficiencies of robots. Robots have irrefutable benefits like How Robots Create Jobstheir incessant efficiency, consistency, and relentless work ethic. Once again, “no army can stop an idea whose time has come”.

The manufacture of robots has created jobs. And a transition is underway, whether people or businesses have planned for it or not. Those that have not planned for it have been negatively affected by the high cost of labor and thereby loss of business competitiveness. Those that have planned for the transition have benefited and prospered from the transition.

As Charles Darwin noted, it is not the strongest or the largest of the species (companies in this case) that have survived the best; many hitherto large and powerful companies have filed for bankruptcy protection, but instead the ones most receptive and adaptive to change that have benefited the most. This need to adapt or change quickly via information or a “digital nervous system” was underscored by Bill Gates in his book “Business at the Speed of Thought”.

The Job Cost Numbers

How Robots Create JobsLet’s look at the financial math behind the manual worker and the iron worker (industrial robot). In countries of high cost labor e.g., the United States of America, Western Europe and Japan, the hourly cost of manual labor can be about $20 per hour; it is higher in Europe but the example holds.

In BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries of low cost labor, the hourly cost of manual labor can be as low as $1 per hour. This “financial advantage” has driven many companies to move manufacturing to countries of low cost labor. It requires significant financial strength and infrastructure and commitment to do so.

Such transitions require significant spans of time zones, language barriers, cultural adjustments, shipping and receiving logistics, customs, insurance, quality management, business monitoring and cash flow adjustments. For example a product made with $1 per hour labor requires training, shipping of materials, quality management, communication from halfway around the world, etc. and then when the product is ready, it may have to be paid FOB at the port of shipping in the Pacific Rim, ocean insurance and freight, customs clearance in Los Angeles, a delay to process the product, and then the expenditure of expensive fuel and gas to transport the product to its final point of distribution and sale.

All this magnifies that $1 per hour labor cost to as much as $10 per hour and calculators to estimate these “stack up of costs” are available on the internet e.g., at www.saveyourfactory.com. Jobs created in this manner are completely transitioned from countries of high cost labor to countries of low cost labor.

How Robots Create Jobs

Now enter robots, machine vision and automation. This too requires an investment like the overseas low cost labor option. The first one or two years require a ROI or Return in Investment period during which the cost of robots, machine vision and automation are recouped against the savings achieved from manual labor. But from then on, the cost of manufacture per hour is lower than the cost of producing in countries of low cost labor!!! This fact has not been well known in the past and it is the key to how robots create jobs and save businesses in countries of high cost labor.

Like the investment in the iron horse, the investment in the iron worker makes businesses stronger and allows them to compete against any other company and against any labor cost model in the world. Moreover, there are additional human quality of life benefits.

Companies that embrace this change and adapt to it end up seeing that their businesses can thrive in regions of high cost labor. They can preserve their local communities, pay taxes, preserve schools, churches, support businesses and family relationships without job disruptions, family disruptions or relocation. And after the Great Recession, this dynamic is enabling a host of manufacturing companies to regain their strength and to forge ahead with new competitiveness, a new relevance and a renewed strength. Even the BRIC countries are embracing robots for reasons of benefit that transcend low cost labor.

A Transition, a Plan, a Journey

How Robots Create Jobs This model of automation and renewed strength requires a proactive adaptation to change. A 100 employee company that has worked manually for 30 years will find itself with a need to transition, a need to plan and a need to journey to a better prosperity.

Inevitably, some manual work will transition to robots. Inevitably, the manual workers will require retraining and a new job focus in the same company.

There are many government programs available to provide the necessary training and to provide the necessary financing to accomplish the transition plan. This results in a corporate benefit as well as an employee benefit. It requires a commitment to learn these dynamics and opportunities and then to make a plan to forge ahead. Many companies that do so find themselves stronger against global competition and find that they can pay their former manual workers more money per hour in their newly invigorated newly automated and highly competitive company.

Industrial Robots After The Recession

The proof is in the market reports. All indications are that after the Great Recession, robot, machine vision and automation sales are growing at a pace far faster and higher than the pace of general economic recovery. Robot sales have set records in the last two years and the change has been embraced in droves.

The resistance to deploy robots is hardly seen any more amongst unions and even the media is touting the benefits of robots now; most notably in a recent Forbes magazine article entitled “Buy a Robot and Save America”. This article was based on a presentation made by Ron Potter, presently Director of Robotics Technology at Factory Automation Systems in Atlanta Georgia entitled, “The Business Case for Robots: How the US Can Compete and Win in Global Manufacturing”. Potter has been involved with robotics innovation for more than 40 years and is a 1995 winner of the highest award in industrial robotics, the Joseph F. Engelberger Award.

How Robots Create JobsDifferent Kinds of Labor Unions

It is also true that after the Great Recession, labor unions have adapted and formed new “win win” models for the future. The labor wage structures tend to be more tiered now based on ability and experience and thus more biased towards meritocracy. The deals between car companies and unions are more mutualistic as evidenced in successful unions in post Second World War Japan (read David Halberstam’s “The Reckoning”) or the days of J Paul Getty as described in his famous book “How to be Rich.

Industrial Robot Job Growth

So now, much like the manufacture of the iron horse (cars), the manufacture of the iron worker (robots) is accelerating.

Major robot companies and their suppliers are reporting corporate expansions and job creation. The demand for skilled robot technicians, engineers and related jobs has skyrocketed and our educational institutions are investing heavily in robot programs. The Robotic Industries Association (RIA) is consistently reporting growth in membership, member revenue, member jobs and related prosperity.

This is a much welcome trend for those who have journeyed in the last two decades through skepticism and even more importantly the maturing of technology and reduction of automation pricing to unleash the forces of mass adoption. It is refreshing to see the economic benefits after the recession. It is even more refreshing to see that fears of the success of robot and vision projects have diminished and that there is renewed confidence in the success of these projects in End User communities, in automation communities and in component supplier communities.

Moreover, the RIA has announced and implemented industry measures to provide objective certification to help raise the level of competency of member companies through the recent RIA Certified Robot Integrator Program and the AIA Certified Vision Professional (CVP) Program.

The Pervasive Physical Relevance of Service Robots
How Robots Create Jobs
As if growth in the industrial robot job market is not enough good news, another phenomenon in job growth is unfolding before our eyes. The service robot has arrived and it is offering all kinds of benefit to humans outside factories just like the industrial robot has provided benefit inside factories. Jobs in the fields of service robotics are rapidly being created by small startups, large companies, government agencies and many universities and their commercialization arms.

The International Federation of Robotics projects that 85% of all robots will be service robots by 2018; a mere six years away. Once again, like iron horses in the past, and iron workers in the present, we should pay heed to the future and take lesson from Hugo’s saying: “No army can prevent an idea whose time has come”.

Service robots promise to do for the physical benefit of humans what computers have done for the mental benefit of humans. Computers have not taken over our brains, but they have vastly improved our ability to tap into information and to access it as needed in seconds. In a similar way, service robots are paving the way to physical benefits at home, on the road and at work in profound and pervasive ways.

Service robots are creating new solutions of convenience and efficiency and physical strength, and entirely new types of jobs in the air, on land, on water and under water. There are dozens of new markets, job fields and areas of activity in the field of service robots. They were explained in an RIA featured article in 2011 entitled: Service Robots and their Rapid Rise in Multiple Markets.

Where to Start with Robotics

If you are a student and wish to embark on a career in robotics, the Lego and FIRST robot competitions offer an excellent way to begin. You may focus on the mechanical, electrical, software, interface or application areas of robotics; or any combination thereof. Many universities and technical colleges are starting or growing their existing programs in robotics which are theoretical as well as practical and that emphasize hands on learning and team work.
How Robots Create Jobs
In January 2012, RIA launched the new RhoBotaPhi blog site to help students, faculty and job seekers plan for career opportunities in robotics. The site is designed to assist students and educators connect with companies in the robotics industry. Extensive resources that every robotics student will need are made available. For more information, visit the RhoBotaPhi website at: www.rhobotaphi.com.

If you are an industry professional, you may wish to learn from free webinars that the RIA offers via its Market Trends Webinar Series. If you are an industrial worker and wish to learn how to implement robotics in your company, visit the following association websites: RIA’s Robotics Online, AIA’s Vision Online and MCA’s Motion Control Online.

National Robotics Week
How Robots Create Jobs
April 7 – 15 marks the celebration of National Robotics Week; the RIA will be hosting two free webinars: Career Opportunities in Robotics (4/10/12) and Fundamentals of Robotics: Factory Solutions (4/12/12). Registration is required.

Contribution Acknowledgements

Contact Information

Adil Shafi is President of ADVENOVATION, Inc., specializing in software solutions and innovation in the field of Vision Guided Robotics (contact adil@advenovation.com or visit www.advenovation.com).

Read the original posting here.


New Applications for Mobile Robots

April 6, 2012

by Bennett Brumson , Contributing Editor
Robotic Industries Association
Originally posted 04/05/2012

Mobility promises to be the next frontier in flexible robotics. While fixed robots will always have a place in manufacturing, augmenting traditional robots with mobile robots promises additional flexibility to end-users in new applications. These applications include medical and surgical uses, personal assistance, security, warehouse and distribution applications, as well as ocean and space exploration.

“We see increased interest in mobile robotics across all industries. The ability of one mobile robot to service several locations and perform a greatly expanded range of tasks offers a great appeal for specialized applications,” says Corey Ryan, Medical Account Manager at KUKA Robotics Corp. (Shelby Township, Michigan).

Autonomous mobile robot on the job, courtesy Adept Technology Inc.Mobile Apps
Mobile robots are proliferating says Rush LaSelle, Vice President and General Manager with Adept Technology Inc. (Pleasanton, California). “In the industrial space, mobile robots are redefining the playing field for autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) in that modern mobile platforms are capable of operating in areas without requiring alterations or investment into existing infrastructure. Mobile robots overcome a historical impediment of AGVs, their inability to dynamically reroute themselves. Mobile robots are outfitted with advanced sensory and enhanced intelligence systems.”

Reduced costs enable deploying both large and small fleets of vehicles in warehouse distribution and line-side logistics applications, LaSelle adds.

Mobile robots can be particularly useful in painting and de-painting applications, says Erik Nieves, Director of Technology in the Motoman Robotics Division of Yaskawa America Inc. (Miamisburg, Ohio). “Mobility is a force multiplier for robots and I see that in de-painting very large structures such as C-130 aircraft. Two fixed robots cannot de-paint an entire aircraft between them because they cannot reach everywhere.” More than two fixed robots constitutes too much hardware with very little throughput. “Each robot is painting a little piece then sit idle, parked more than moving,” says Nieves.

Nieves suggests that rather than adding additional fixed robots around the aircraft, end-users needs a way to have two robots deal with an entire aircraft. “To de-paint an entire aircraft with two robots, those two robots need to move.” Putting the robots on servo tracks or a gantry is unfeasible due to aircraft’s geometry. “Putting two seven-axis robots on mobile platforms and driving them around the aircraft” is a better solution, Nieves says.

Mobile robot working on aircraft wing, courtesy Southwest Research InstituteLikewise, Paul Hvass, Senior Research Engineer with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI, San Antonio, Texas) says mobile robots facilitate cost-effective paint removal from large aircraft. “The motivation behind the development of our Metrology-Referenced Roving Accurate Manipulator (MR ROAM) was to demonstrate high-accuracy, industrial-grade mobile manipulation for very large workspaces, an enabling capability for applications like aircraft paint stripping. SwRI has a 25-year history of developing, deploying, and supporting custom robots for fighter jet paint stripping and other large scale applications.”

Hvass goes on to say, “To economically strip paint from larger planes, mobile automation is needed. In the future, we envision mobile robots developed for large-scale tasks including aerospace, off-shore, and road, bridge, and building construction. These robots will initially undertake light-duty tasks such as painting, cleaning, and inspection before moving on to heavier-duty tasks as mobile robotic technology matures,” Hvass concludes.

Medical/Surgical Applications
Corey Ryan talks about potential uses of mobile robotics in medical and other life sciences applications. “Medical applications are always a growing field with huge untapped applications like drug delivery, or the development of mobile treatment systems for specialized equipment.”

People and mobile robots working collaboratively, courtesy RMT Robotics Ltd.Autonomous mobile robots (AMR) can play a role in assisting doctors in surgical procedures, says, Bill Torrens, Director of Sales and Marketing with RMT Robotics Ltd. (Grimsby, Ontario, Canada). “AMR technology is applied in surgical applications. Based on inputs, the robot arm assists the surgeon to perform a task. Path-planning algorithms move the robot autonomously.”

Sean Thompson, Applications Engineer at MICROMO (Clearwater, Florida) sees an increase use of robotics for automated prosthesis fabrication. “Minimizing motor size helps make prostheses more related to the natural human form. That comes down to applying power to build prostheses that more closely emulates the body’s natural capabilities.”

Danger Seeker
Mobile robots can access areas dangerous to humans, says, Andrew Goldenberg, President of Engineering Services Inc. (ESI, Toronto, Ontario, Canada). “Mobile robots are used to reach inaccessible areas such as nuclear power plants. Mobile robotics are very useful in nuclear environments with high levels of radiation, particularly during a disaster or threat of a disaster.”

Goldenberg goes on to say, “Some companies are using robotics underwater while others want to develop robotics for military applications, shoreline exploration of mines, and for repairing a ship’s structure.” ESI is involved with mobile robots for space exploration, such as rovers remotely moving on Mars.

Mobile robot bristling with sensors on tracks, courtesy Engineering Services Inc.As a caveat, Goldenberg says, “Current robotics are not quite sufficiently designed to withstand high radiation affecting their electronic circuitry. Some attempts to design mobile robotics specifically for use in this environment have been made.”

Wireless communication with mobile robots is still a challenge, says Goldenberg. “If mobile robots go underground or in areas of low connectivity like subway tunnels, control of the robot could be lost.”

Hvass also talks about communication to and from mobile robots. “If the robot communicates with infrastructure over a wireless link, that link is vulnerable due to bandwidth sharing, variable distances between radios, obstructions, and non-deterministic protocols.”

Mobile robots for use in inaccessible areas is also on the mind of Sean Thompson. “We see more interest in undersea robotics with smaller non-tethered robots used by research facilities. Aerial robotics tends to go either way, smaller platforms and larger platforms, depending on the mission. Camera packages have gotten smaller which allow aerial robots to roam at lower altitudes in shorter distances on smaller aircraft. These remote-controlled aircraft are collecting highly-detailed and accurate video.”

Thompson speaks of other military applications of mobile robotics. “Troopers could carry heavier loads with robotic pack dogs and exoskeletons. This technology is different from replacing a service dog but will be commonplace in five to 10 years.”

LaSelle also sees mobile robotics utilized for patrol and monitoring applications. “Another key expansion of mobile robotics has been in monitoring, security and patrolling. Patrolling applications provide users with the ability to monitor intrusion, thermal and other environmental conditions. A key area of activity has been the monitoring and patrol of vacant properties as well as warehousing spaces.” This increased ability is due to the reliability and low costs attributed to autonomous vehicle patrol capabilities, LaSelle says.

Thermal monitoring is of special interest to Internet server farms and other sensitive electronic or mechatronic systems. Water ingress is also commonly monitored by way of mobile robotics, LaSelle notes.

Mobile robots are finding their way into other non-industrial applications. “The reduced cost of deployment and ownership mobile robots have extended their reach into non-factory applications. The current generation of smart vehicles is leading hospitals, laboratories, and some offices to employ mobile robots to alleviate the use of skilled labor for mundane transport tasks.”

Continuing, LaSelle adds, “Mobility is already the norm in service applications and this sector is primed for tremendous growth. Service robotics is expected to overshadow the industrial robot sector in a matter of a few years. Adept believes mobile robots will be an exciting area in coming years,” reports LaSelle.

Mobility=Lean
The vision of truly lean manufacturing is being realized through mobile robotics says Torrens. “Mobile robotics connect islands of automation. The last frontier of lean manufacturing facilitates the connection between manufacturing work cells. Mobile robots are now used for transporting materials from donation areas and taking these raw materials to a work cell.”

Torrens says mobile robotics provides a much higher level of flexibility for manufacturers. “For example, a manufacturing facility normally delivers a bin of 100 parts for a machine to work on. This is an example of batch processing, not lean manufacturing. Lean manufacturing embraces a piece-work philosophy, or a smaller batch philosophy. If taking one piece at a time to a machine, manufacturers have more flexibility with robotic transport between manufacturing cells. That approach is lean manufacturing as originally intended.”

Torrens believes “mobile robots have finally achieved the goals of what the factory of the future was supposed to look like. The machines were in place but the transport logistic was not.” Mobile robotics provides that logistical support, argues Torrens. “To realize lean manufacturing, robots must be highly intelligent and able to autonomously deliver parts from any random origin to any random destination. Mobile robot technology up to this point has been unable to deliver materials in a just-in-time way.”

LaSelle anticipates mobile robotics serving the ends of lean manufacturing through processing of optimal batch sizes in warehouse and palletizing applications. “Adept sees the combination of mobility and manipulation as a powerful combination as evident in the increasing demand for case-picking applications. Companies want to move smaller batch sizes throughout their facilities.” End-users want to move less than a full pallet from a warehouse to a production line, concludes LaSelle.

“Companies look for solutions to pick cases or parts individually within a warehouse as compared to pulling a full rack. As this trend continues, expect to see more demand for systems encompassing mobility, manipulation, and vision. Given the rate of technological advancement and drive for smaller batch sizes in manufacturing, we will see mobile robots become a staple in a large cross section of manufacturing within the next six to seven years,” foresees LaSelle.

Autonomous Locomotion
Genuine independent mobility is necessary for robotics to add significant value to manufacturing says Erik Nieves. “Mobility moves robots from being machines to production partners. The robot has to move to the work but if the robot is bolted to the floor and has no work before that robot, the robot is adding zero value to the production process.” Bringing a mobile robot to where production is rather than bringing production to a fixed robot is the philosophical underpinning of mobile robotics, Nieves says.

Any mobile platform must address issues relating to power, navigation, and calibration, says Nieves. “Instead of mobile robots tethered to a source of power through an umbilical, the robot will dock to a power source when reaching a point of interest, to recharge while working.” On-board power simply keeps the robot mobile during transit.

Nieves turns his attention to navigation, or “How the robot gets from A to B autonomously. Using simultaneous localization and mapping, the mobile robot can go from one station to the next largely on its own with without many changes to the facility. To change the mobile robot’s path, [a number of guidance] labels are put somewhere else,” describes Nieves.

Calibration, the final element in Nieves’ approach, is a measure of how close the robot gets to it intended destination. “The robot must calibrate itself to the machine in front of it every time it arrives at one. Calibration is done by some means, such as touching off on three points or using a vision sensor to allow the robot to determine its location.”

Kiva Systems’ (North Reading, Massachusetts) automated warehouse system is an example of mobile robots quickly and efficiently fulfilling customers’ orders. The robot-based system impressed on-line retail giant Amazon.com (Seattle, Washington) enough to acquire Kiva in March 2012.

Going Mobile
As with any new, cutting-edge technology, mobile robotics has yet to become the norm in manufacturing. “In heavy or unusual payload applications, mobile robotic platforms are becoming increasingly common along with a great deal of interest in small mobile platforms. Given the current level of technology already used in mobile platforms, these products will likely become very common within the next five to 10 years,” says Corey Ryan.

To do so, the robotics industry will need to continue educating end-users on the potential of mobile robotics. For more information on service robots, check out the 2011 feature article on Robotics Online: Service Robots and their Rapid Rise in Multiple Markets.

To read the original posting, click here.