Robotics software for the next generation

Educators, researchers, and robotics companies have collaborated to develop software that enables robots to work in new applications to help shrink the industrial manufacturing skills gap. As a result, more intelligent robotics software now is enabling greater robotics capabilities for the next generation of technology and manufacturing workers. See video.


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This video montage from ROS-Industrial shows highlights from its third anniversary. Courtesy: ROS-Industrial, Robotic Industries Association (RIA)

The days of robots as dim-witted devices are gone. The future is filled with smart sensors, software and end-of-arm tooling (EOAT). It's the brain behind the brawn. The puppeteer pulling the strings. The escape from relentless monotony. Without software, however, brilliant hardware goes nowhere.

Software can't do it alone. Those robot "brains" extend human capabilities and are a reflection of our vision for what's possible. That vision gets keener with every generation and every technological leap. Sophisticated software and intelligent robotics depend on the evolution of those doing the research, design, specification, and implementation.

At the Tri-Rivers Career Center in Marion, Ohio, home of the Robotic Advanced Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative (RAMTEC), students of all ages are preparing for a future populated with intelligent machines and connected systems.

"It's important that kids start understanding the concept of robotics," said Ritch Ramey, RAMTEC engineering coordinator. "We're going to see it expand probably tenfold in the use of robots over the next 15 to 20 years. They should at least know the basics of robotics."

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), global robot deployment will more than double from 1 million robots in 2009 to 2.3 million by 2018. To keep those robots humming and evolving, a skilled workforce will be needed. This is a tall order that requires closing the skills gap in automation and bringing younger workers into the fold. RAMTEC is answering the call.

Figure 1: High school students prepare for industrial certification by learning how to use robot programming software both in the virtual world and hands-on with an industrial robot. Courtesy: Tri-Rivers Career Center (RAMTEC), Robotic Industries AssociatSoftware certification for robots

Learning to program robots, and the ins and outs of various software platforms, is an integral part of the curriculum at RAMTEC. Students learn to use robots, as well as robotic welding, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), hydraulics, pneumatics, computer-numerical controls (CNCs), computer-aided design (CAD), and 3D printing. These are the necessary building blocks for any budding engineer or robotics technician.

Ramey, a credentialed instructor at RAMTEC, said the collaborative plans to add machine vision to their robotics curriculum, as vision-guided robotics has become essential to many industrial applications. With Industrie 4.0 coming and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) vital to the smart factory concept, he says RAMTEC's students also will need to learn the Cisco platform as they enter an ever-connected industrial world.

RAMTEC instructors have credentials to teach on several industrial robotics platforms and Ramey hopes to soon add more types of collaborative robots to the program.

The nine RAMTEC sites in Ohio provide students with the software training required for the following credentials:

Fanuc HandlingTool Operation and programming certification

Yaskawa Motoman DX100 basic programming certification

Certified Solidworks associate

AutoCAD certified professional.

"Our students have to do exactly what the industry people do," Ramey said. "The same amount of time, same assignments, same e-learning, and same tests to get their credentialing."

The students are typically high school juniors and seniors, such as Christina Irvine and Brianna Pritchard (see Figure 1) who are learning to use Fanuc's Roboguide robot simulation software. The students are comparing the software menu on the PC used in their e-learning courses to the actual robot in the Fanuc Certified Education Robot Training (CERT) Cart. This type of virtual and hands-on training prepares the students for Fanuc certification.

"We teach offline programming, because that's a real tool," Ramey said. "You can't just stop a production line to program a robot. A lot of the programming is done on the virtual software, either Roboguide (Fanuc offline programming package) or MotoSim (Yaskawa's simulation software)."

Hands-on robot training

"I don't think there's an advantage to either robot programming language," Ramey said. "Whichever one the students learn first is a little harder because it's a brand new concept. But once the students learn one programming language, they pick up the next one much faster."

At RAMTEC, the student-robot ratio is typically 2:1 or 3:1, which allows students to get significant hands-on time with the robot cell. The students learn welding and palletizing processes not only using the mobile education carts, but also the large payload robots.

"With a lot of schools, they will have maybe 10 of the software virtual packages and maybe one industrial robot, so they will program on the virtual robot," Ramey said. "Then they take that program on a pendant and plug it into the robot and it will run. You also can have the virtual pendant on the computer, but the real training is that (hardware) teach pendant that controls everything."

Figure 2: Students use a teach pendant to program a robot to simulate a palletizing process. Courtesy: Tri-Rivers Career Center (RAMTEC), Robotic Industries Association (RIA)Robot programming wish list

Ramey said he hopes to see the robot teach pendants get smaller like a PlayStation controller, and much easier to use. "Down the road, I see them going to even your basic cell phone and tablet to program robots."

He also would like a feature that he saw at IMTS 2016 in Chicago to become widespread. "Where you can just drag the end effector or end of the robot around and put your position points where you want them, and then it will remember those, instead of using XYZ coordinates and all the jogging coordinates," he said. "That will make things so much simpler. You actually can go in and grab the robot, show it what you want it to do and then tweak the program. That needs to become universal in all robots. A must is being able to plug the teach pendant right into the robot," he added, versus using a flash drive to transfer a program to the robot.

"I think the next generation of software will be able to reach a younger generation of students. I think all of the industry is looking at how to get more high school and junior high students involved. Schools are also pushing robotics down to the elementary level. The next wave of students will be more robot savvy than this generation, because years of experience and terminology will help them learn faster. Industry might have to catch up with the kids at that point."

RAMTEC hosted an event to celebrate Manufacturing Day on Oct. 13, 2016, including a facility tour, a robotics competition, and an industrial robotics contest. Ramey said students are thirsting for more real-world robotics applications experience, and he hopes that it will become an international competition.

The events also allow automation and robotics end users to scout and hire new recruits, which is what Honda did at RAMTEC's National Robotics Challenge last April.

Thanks to a third round of Straight A grants totaling $6 million by the Ohio Department of Education, the RAMTEC concept is expected to be thriving in 23 locations by this fall. A larger pool of students will have opportunities for career development in advanced manufacturing and robotics, a big push toward tightening that skills gap.

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