Automation and robots becoming faster, more sophisticated

Improving productivity and safety in automation and robotics were a major theme throughout Automate 2017 as companies demonstrated their latest technologies.
By Chris Vavra April 28, 2017

Brian Hovey, chief marketing officer, Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions (SPS), discussed the importance of safety at a joint Honeywell-Intelligrated press conference at Automate. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE MediaAutomate 2017 at McCormick Place in Chicago demonstrated plenty of advances in robotics, software development, and other advances that are taking manufacturing in places that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. As the technology becomes more intertwined, the possibilities grow. Here are some of the highlights from the show floor.

Companies looking to expand into e-commerce

Honeywell’s acquisition of Intelligrated in 2016 has allowed both companies to look for new ways to expand in the material handling and packaging industry. There’s a particular focus on helping companies in the e-commerce business, which has been dominated by Amazon. Other companies are looking to follow suit and improve productivity.

"There is fierce competition in retail and companies are trying to find new ways to capture and retain customers in an industry where is a tremendous amount of growth," said Chris Cole, chairman and general manager, Intelligrated, at a press conference.

There is a huge premium, Cole said, on efficiency and labor is becoming more expensive and harder to retain in the picking and packing industry. Downtime, he said, is not an option, which means management has to adapt to the new situation.

"The relationship between the employer and the employee is changing and it’s becoming more difficult." Companies developing their e-commerce business, Cole said, are realizing it is a 24/7 business. "In e-commerce, business stops if you can’t ship. Developments are all about keeping uptime."

Safety is also a priority and concern as the industry becomes more automated. "Whatever we develop for companies is all about keeping the customers safe at all times," said Brian Hovey, chief marketing officer, Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions (SPS). Honeywell and Intelligrated are also focused on expanding their operations beyond North America as well as developing sortation technologies, software, and support services, which goes back to bringing downtime to zero and improving uptime.

"The industry has evolved from reactive to proactive," said Chuck Adams, chief commercial officer and general manager, Intelligrated. "It’s about maximizing uptime while also being cost-competitive in this business." 

Robotics consortium going global

ROS-Industrial (ROS-I), an open-source industrial robotic software and working group established by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has come a long way in the last few years with expansions and partnerships in Europe and the United States. In May 2017, it will become a global outfit with the official launch of ROS Asia-Pacific in Singapore.

"We will truly have a worldwide network and we’re glad to have Asia-Pacific in our group," said Paul Evans, director, SwRI. Having a global entity that spans three continents provides a pair of key benefits, according to Evans.

"It allows each group to focus on addressing regional manufacturing issues. It also allows each group to collaborate and deal with crosscutting issues. There’s also more people supporting the leadership team from each side," Evans said.

Each entity also brings its own priorities to the table, which allows the group to learn and grow from one another in an open, collaborative environment. While the U.S. is more focused on advanced applications, Europe is more focused in code quality, and both issues feed into one another, which creates a stronger overall robot software that can do more.

"Being able to leverage priorities is a tremendous advantage," Evans said. "And each lead for the region does regular information-sharing, which allows the groups to coordinate and avoid any potential overlap." 

Robots becoming smarter, safer

Rethink Robotics’ Intera 5 software was on display with their collaborative robot, Sawyer, at Automate. Intera’s features include an embedded sensor and direct interaction with an intuitive interface. It allows the user to start a task from scratch and create a program that allows the robot to pick-and-place items up to 5 kg. Sawyer is already used for tending and inspection applications and the updated software allows it to work faster and perform more intuitive tasks for pick-and-place jobs.

"There are a lot of industries it can be used for such as automotive, electronics, and other industries where you have human-scale repetitive tasks," said Mike Fair, customer success manager, Rethink Robotics.

There was another display where Sawyer did an inspection test of a spark plug on a motor and it went through a series of motions to determine if everything was safe. When the plug was removed, a signal would be set off and the robot would put the plug back where it belonged.

Safety is also something Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) is focused on. They recently released their MiR200, an autonomous mobile robot, and had several of the robots roaming around their booth without any help or assistance. When a person moved in front of the robot, it would immediately stop thanks to a sensor that allowed it to come to a full stop.

Thomas Visti, MiR’s CEO, believes there’s a place for autonomous mobile robots in the workplace now and especially in the future. "We see a trend where companies redesign their facility to change to cell production and you need to have mobile transportation to move items from place to place."

Mobile robots, he said, have another advantage: Flexibility. "You never know what next year will bring and having something fixed can cost you a few years down the road."

The MiR robots have a basic core design that can be redesigned and retrofitted for many manufacturing and medical applications to give the user a greater amount of freedom in how they use the product. 

TM Robotics’ demonstrated their robots’ pick-and-place abilities by moving golf tees and golf into position and then the robot putted the ball into a hole and repeated the process. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE MediaIndustrial robot market still staying strong

TM Robotics’ president Nigel Smith admitted that collaborative robots have been a strong trend in the industry the last five years. "The question is, though: Do customers need it? It depends on their application and what they want to do. And rather than doing their risk assessment and due diligence, they’ve decided on something that, for them, isn’t cost-effective because you end up paying more," he said.

TM Robotics’ focus remains on industrial robots and they have developed Cartesian, selective compliance assembly robot arm (SCARA), and axis robots that are designed for many applications across multiple industries. Like MiR, the robot design has a basic concept that can be used for many applications throughout manufacturing. And those applications will continue to grow as automation and the Internet of Things (IoT) become more sophisticated.

"I think the robot market, with the improved connectivity with peripheral equipment, and the IoT-ness of it, those are the things that are having the greatest impact an effect on the market," Smith said. 

Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,