Fabtech, My First Trade Fair In Person in Two Years

It is nice to be back. Like riding a bicycle, there was no relearning required getting back into the trade show routine. Only difference for me was I drove from home (now in the northwest Chicago suburbs) in a little over an hour rather than the 4-1/2 hours from western Ohio.

There were many exhibitors. Fabtech is a metal working show with the addition of an additive manufacturing section. The show filled most of the south hall of McCormick, a big chunk of the north hall, a little of the east hall main floor, and most of the second level of the east hall for the additive technology show and conference.

I’ll be posting press releases of relevant companies later. I’ll summarize the experience here.

I learned in the additive hall that there are three major players—Markforge (which actually had a booth in the south hall), Essentium (where I got a half-hour with the CEO), and Stratasys (probably the first one I knew about a few years ago). These companies provide materials, machines, and software. Each has a slightly different emphasis from the others. I had a sense that they are beginning to get connected—as in connected to the rest of manufacturing and to the enterprise.

One company showed micro products. Tolerances of parts has gotten very good. I ran across the beginnings of “Manufacturing-as-a-Service” ideas. These machines being digital can and do collect amazing amounts of data.

Robots were my focus in the Fabtech part of the show. Especially cobots, where I spent some time in the Universal Robotics booth. Much more later, but the new thing with cobots is welding. An application previously reserved for the big six-axis machines, many welding applications are perfect for the smaller cobot. One company building on to Universal Robotics’ cobot claimed it could bring in a cobot welding system in the morning and have it in production after lunch. I believe them. I have seen how easy these are to set up and get started.

A company called Simpac builds presses. It has developed an XR application for iPads and similar devices that lets a tech virtually walk through the press, see through an exploded view to find the recalcitrant part, and then find part numbers of replacement parts. They’ve used it as a run-off, buy-off tool in these Covid reduced travel days.

Enterprise software was represented. I talked with the Epicor people. Wiser Systems has a location tracking product with an internally developed wireless mesh network. And automation companies Beckhoff Automation and Bosch Rexroth were also there. More in a later post.

Traffic was decent through the show floor. I don’t think many exhibitors were greatly disappointed, but they would have liked more traffic. With the first time back and Covid reappearing, I’d consider the show a success. But Covid has impacted a conference I was slated to speak at which is now going virtual. Oh, well. 

Customized Robotics-as-a-Service Offering Lets Manufacturers ‘Hire’ Robots

It seems as if everything can be as-a-Service these days, now even robotics. Formic Technologies launched recently with a simple value proposition: hire fully customized robots from top vendors at a low hourly rate and no upfront cost. To help small and medium-size manufacturers benefit from automation, Formic handles every aspect of a financing and deployment—from scoping, engineering, purchasing, implementation, and maintenance. The company also guarantees uptime, with customers paying nothing for system downtime.

Purchasing robotics can be expensive and a capital expense rather than an operational expense. This results in a barrier to entry for smaller manufacturers dissuading them from deploying automation altogether.

“We started Formic because we saw all that automation can do, and we wanted to provide a way for any manufacturer to easily adopt automation in a simple, risk-free, and on-demand way,” said Saman Farid, CEO and co-founder. “With Formic’s fundamentally different approach to financing and deployment, manufacturers can do more with automation without high costs or a lengthy and complicated purchasing and deployment process.” 

Formic’s model was designed to systematically remove every barrier to entry, allowing manufacturers to deploy automation efficiently and cost effectively. Testing shows that Formic’s deployments are 50% faster than traditional approaches and save customers 42% on their operating expenses from the first day.

According to Farid, an engineer and robotics start-up investor who founded Formic with former Universal Robots salesperson Misa Ikhechi, a unique combination of products and services make Formic’s model possible:

  • Systematized deployment processes
  • In-house equipment financing
  • Formic-designed solutions featuring products from leading robotic vendors such as Universal Robots, Fanuc, and ABB

“We came to the conclusion that what manufacturers needed was not any specific new technology, but a better way to access the technology that would best meet their needs,” Farid said. “Formic offers that access at a fraction of the cost or energy, as Formic takes on the heavy lifting.”

Robotics, Vibration, and Water Systems News

Today is another “wrap up a bunch of products” day. It’s been a hectic couple of days where I was on a panel with the ZEDEDA Transform event live on the Web (I’m sure it will be ondemand shortly) while today Don Pearson of Inductive Automation interviewed me for an Inductive podcast. Below are two robotic announcements looking forward to new applications, a reliability oriented vibration sensor, and a water system.

MASS Robotics Partners with Procter and Gamble

MassRobotics helps create and scale the next generation of successful robotics and connected devices companies by providing entrepreneurs and innovative robotics/automation startups with the workspace and resources they need to develop, prototype, test and commercialize their products and solutions. It has launched a new partnership with Procter & Gamble (P&G) to collaboratively explore technologies around automation and manufacturing-related applications.

The goal of the partnership is to develop ideas to improve productivity, drive increased value for consumers, accelerate agility from more automation, and allow more flexibility in meeting the manufacturing deadlines of customers. In addition to exploring and accessing innovations from resident startups, MassRobotics’ overall community will help P&G remain on the cutting-edge of the robotics and automation industry and more closely collaborate with existing P&G robotics partners in Massachusetts.

MassRobotics is the result of the collective work of a global group of engineers, rocket scientists, and entrepreneurs with a shared vision to create a strong, vibrant robotics and IoT ecosystem. 

MiR Introduces Two New Robots

Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), the global market leader in autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), launched its most powerful robots for transporting pallets and other heavy items around manufacturing facilities, warehouses, and logistics centers. The MiR600 and MiR1350 robots, which can lift up to 600 kg (1322 pounds) and 1350 kg (2976 pounds), respectively, are designed to safely and efficiently perform material handling tasks in challenging industrial environments.

The industrial and protected MiR600 and MiR1350 are the market’s first Ingress Protection52-rated autonomous mobile robots, which mean their components are protected and can tolerate dust and water drops.

New AMRs optimize all logistics—inbound, production and outbound

The larger MiR600 and MiR1350 are ideal for autonomously transporting heavy loads of materials and goods in:

• loading bays

• production and assembly areas

• warehouses

• material delivery areas

Like MiR’s other AMRs (MiR100, MiR200, MiR250, MiR500 and MiR1000), the MIR600 and MIR1350 navigate smoothly and safely among people and other transport equipment in dynamic surroundings. Sensors, 3D cameras and the latest laser scanning technology ensure 360-degree vision for precise and safe navigation and operations. The new AMRs are designed to comply with the industry’s latest safety standards, including ISO 3691-4 and ANSI/RIA R15.08-1-2020.

Fluke Reliability introduces the Fluke 3562 Screening Vibration Sensor system

Fluke Reliability introduces the Fluke 3562 Screening Vibration Sensor system. With its batteryless technology, long-range sensor-to-gateway communication, and ability to connect up to 1,000 sensors to a single gateway, the Fluke 3562 is a “set it and forget it” solution that can operate continuously, even in hard-to-reach places. 

When used with the recently released Fluke 3563 Analysis Vibration Sensor for critical machines and LIVE-Asset management software, maintenance teams now have a comprehensive solution for virtually every asset in the plant. The vibration screening system enables maintenance teams to spot machine faults before catastrophic failures happen, avoiding costly downtime. 

The Fluke 3562 Screening Vibration Sensor draws power from a machine’s heat or the light in the room using innovative thermoelectric or photovoltaic energy harvesters. The technologically advanced sensor screens overall vibration levels, temperature, and humidity, as well as trends the nine highest FFT peaks by magnitude. 

The Fluke 3562’s unique features: 

Batteryless technology — With either a thermoelectric or photovoltaic energy harvester, the sensor requires minimum upkeep over a longer period of time, reducing costs and labor. 

Flexible wireless network capabilities — The wireless gateway has triple network connection capabilities — Wi-Fi, LTE, and Ethernet — so it’s adaptable for any facility.

Scalable and long-range — With long-wavelength signals and the ability to connect up to 1,000 sensors, the Fluke 3562 can be placed further from the gateway, allowing sensors to be installed in more hard-to-reach areas.

KETOS Unveils Updates to its Smart Water Intelligence Platform

Addressing global water management issues, KETOS, Inc., a water intelligence innovator, announced enhancements to its award-winning, cloud-based KETOS Smart Water Intelligence Platform. Key updates include improved user experience and workflow management, greater flexibility to configure customer-specific instances, scalability to support larger concurrent users numbers, the ability to handle larger data sets, and more sophisticated analytics and reporting capabilities.

Bringing water intelligence to customers across agriculture, industrial and municipal operations, KETOS combines software, hardware, and predictive analytics to automate water monitoring and testing. The holistic solution helps solve water efficiency and quality challenges with real-time data and mission-critical insights.

Measuring over 25 water quality parameters, KETOS offers water operators a fully integrated, EPA-compliant solution with intelligent hardware, stable connectivity infrastructure, an interactive software platform, and actionable data. 

KETOS Smart Water Analytics enhancements support operational stability and business continuity efforts across its customers, offering predictive maintenance with zero labor hours required for water operators. Users now have access to improved graphical view enhancements, instant notifications, enhanced calendar-based test scheduling, push mobile notifications, and more.

Additional updates include:

• Vertical-focused analytics including reporting comparisons and correlation between parameters; 

• Improved flexibility  and overall user experience; and

• 24/7 remote support.

ABB To Acquire ASTI Mobile Robotics Group

ABB was an early leader in fixed industrial robots and is still one of the industry leaders. The area of mobile robots has been growing with uses expanding as quickly as engineer’s imaginations. This news is the acquisition of ASTI Mobile Robotics Group by ABB adding a jump start into this market segment. Here are the key bullet points:

  • ASTI is global leader in high growth Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) market with broad portfolio of vehicles and software 
  • Acquisition adds to Robotics and Machine Automation solutions to deliver unique automation portfolio, further expanding into new industry segments
  • AMR business will be headquartered in Burgos, Spain and led by Veronica Pascual Boé, ASTI CEO. New Asia AMR hub, including full value chain and manufacturing, to open at ABB Robotics factory in Shanghai

The market intelligence firm Interact Analysis sent this comment from Ash Sharma, Managing Director:

  • “ABB is the 3rd largest vendor of industrial (fixed) robots in the world but until now (like most other industrial robot vendors) had no play in mobile robotics”
  • “The move to acquire a mobile robot vendor is not surprising as major customers are rapidly adopting mobile robotics to augment their production line automation. Flexible manufacturing necessitates the use of mobile robots for material flow”
  • “This mirrors the move made by Omron which acquired mobile robot vendor Adept back in 2015 and successfully created an integrated offering to vendors of both mobile and fixed robotics”
  • “ASTI has enjoyed >25% growth in recent years and is now ranked as the 4th largest vendor of mobile robots in Europe by revenue”
  • “Mobile robots used in manufacturing environments are forecast to generate more than $13bn in cumulative revenue in the next 4 years”

Following is the news announcement:

ABB announced it will acquire ASTI Mobile Robotics Group (ASTI). This will expand ABB’s robotics and automation offering, making it the only company to offer a complete portfolio for the next generation of flexible automation.

The acquisition, a key part of ABB’s external growth strategy, was signed on July 19 and is expected to close in mid-summer 2021. Both parties agreed not to disclose any details regarding the purchase price.

Founded in 1982, ASTI is headquartered in Burgos, Spain and employs over 300 people in Spain, France and Germany. It is majority owned by Veronica Pascual Boé, who is also CEO. Other shareholders include European Growth Buyout investor Keensight Capital. Today it supports one of Europe’s largest installed fleets of AMRs and has a broad customer base in automotive, logistics, food & beverage and pharmaceuticals in 20 countries. Since 2015, the company has enjoyed close to 30 percent growth on an annual basis and is targeting approximately $50 million in revenue in 2021.

AMRs will support a degree of flexibility, from production, logistics, intralogistics and fulfillment through to retail and healthcare environments. This will enable ABB’s and ASTI’s common vision to help customers replace today’s linear production lines with fully flexible networks, where intelligent AMRs autonomously navigate materials, parts and finished products between smart connected workstations, in factories, logistics centers, laboratories, shops or hospitals.

These will be integrated with ABB’s portfolio of robots, machine automation, modular solutions and software suite including RobotStudio, ABB Robotics’ simulation and programming tool, creating a unique and comprehensive automation portfolio for ABB’s customers.

ASTI’s headquarters in Burgos, Spain will become ABB’s AMR business headquarters, led by Pascual Boé, with core functions, including R&D, engineering, product and project value chain, continuing at ASTI’s facilities. ABB will significantly expand production capacity at the AMR business headquarters to support the planned sales expansion in Europe and the Americas. To facilitate the growth potential for AMRs in China and Asia, ABB will also establish an Asia AMR hub, including full value chain and manufacturing, at its new robotics factory, which will open in Shanghai in 2022. China, the world’s largest robotics market, is projected to account for $1.8 billion of AMR sales annually by 2025.

ABB Robotics’ acquisition comes shortly after the company’s announcements to expand robotics automation for new sectors and first-time users, including the launch of its new GoFa and SWIFTI collaborative robot families and its announcement that it will advance automation in the construction industry.

Universal Robots Takes ActiNav Next-Gen Machine Loading on Tour

I guess we have entered the post-pandemic era. Universal Robots is taking its latest technology on tour this summer. By the time I got to this news item, the first date was passed. If you are close to one of these areas, check out this cool technology.

Automating machine loading traditionally means integrating conveyors, bowl feeders, custom trays, shaker tables or various other components and processes. These approaches can lead to a range of obstacles and challenges, including complex programming and setup, poorly-utilized manpower, inefficient machine utilization and decreased output.

ActiNav changes all that, combining intelligent vision and sensor software with the autonomous motion control of Universal Robots’ world-leading cobots in one seamless Application Kit that solves the random bin picking challenge in machine tending applications. To give manufacturers an opportunity to experience ActiNav hands-on, Universal Robots and its partners are now hosting live demos, inviting attendees to bring their parts to be picked, experiencing how easy it is to set up a sophisticated machine loading system.

“We want manufacturers to experience in person the “wow factor” as they see ActiNav effortlessly pick their randomized parts and place them correctly in a designated place,” says Bryan Bird, Regional Sales Director for Universal Robots’ North America division. “We look forward to working with our partners in providing this unique experience.”

The ActiNav Tour dates are hosted by Universal Robots partners and systems integrators on the following dates and locations:

FPE Automation: July 13, Elk Grove Village, IL

Southwestern PTS: July 22, Coppell, TX

NEFF Wisconsin: August 3, Mequon, WI

CIMTEC: August 5, Charlotte, NC

Shaltz: August 10, Flint, MI

In addition to meeting ActiNav on tour, manufacturers can now leverage an expanded network of ActiNav Solution Providers (ASPs), a vetted and carefully selected group of systems integrators across the U.S. to deploy the next-generation machine loading solution. Joining the ASP network are:

Muratec, Charlotte, NC, PCC Robotics, Germantown, WI, Computech Manufacturing Company, Washington, MI, and PrecisionForm Inc., Lititz, PA.

Bird explains that UR’s selection process focused on integrators with expertise in both vision and robotics, that deliver superior value, and on time/on budget projects for customers.

Dan Carney, General Manager at Wisconsin-based PCC Robotics, is looking forward to sharing the benefits of Actinav with manufacturers in his region. “As a systems integrator we find parts staging to be a key component of nearly every application,” he says. “We have reviewed a number of bin picking offerings and ActiNav is simply in a different class.”

Better Gripping With Intelligent Picking Robots

Festo has consistently presented me with some of the most impressive creativity within pneumatics, robotics, and automation. This is a fascinating use of artificial intelligence (AI) with robot gripping. Only a couple of years ago, I caught myself thinking that nothing could be as boring as robotic end-of-arm-effectors. How wrong could I have been! This is my second post on this technology in a couple of weeks. Check this out.

Production, warehouse, shipping – where goods are produced, stored, sorted or packed, picking also takes place. This means that several individual goods are removed from storage units such as boxes or cartons and reassembled. With the FLAIROP (Federated Learning for Robot Picking) project Festo and researchers from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), together with partners from Canada, want to make picking robots smarter using distributed AI methods. To do this, they are investigating how to use training data from multiple stations, from multiple plants, or even companies without requiring participants to hand over sensitive company data.

“We are investigating how the most versatile training data possible from multiple locations can be used to develop more robust and efficient solutions using artificial intelligence algorithms than with data from just one robot,” says Jonathan Auberle from the Institute of Material Handling and Logistics (IFL) at KIT. In the process, items are further processed by autonomous robots at several picking stations by means of gripping and transferring. At the various stations, the robots are trained with very different articles. At the end, they should be able to grasp articles from other stations that they have not yet learned about. “Through the approach of federated learning, we balance data diversity and data security in an industrial environment,” says the expert. 

Powerful algorithms for industry and logistics 4.0

Until now, federated learning has been used predominantly in the medical sector for image analysis, where the protection of patient data is a particularly high priority. Consequently, there is no exchange of training data such as images or grasp points for training the artificial neural network. Only pieces of stored knowledge – the local weights of the neural network that tell how strongly one neuron is connected to another – are transferred to a central server. There, the weights from all stations are collected and optimized using various criteria. Then the improved version is played back to the local stations and the process repeats. The goal is to develop new, more powerful algorithms for the robust use of artificial intelligence for industry and Logistics 4.0 while complying with data protection guidelines.

“In the FLAIROP research project, we are developing new ways for robots to learn from each other without sharing sensitive data and company secrets. This brings two major benefits: we protect our customers’ data, and we gain speed because the robots can take over many tasks more quickly. In this way, the collaborative robots can, for example, support production workers with repetitive, heavy, and tiring tasks”, explains Jan Seyler, Head of Advanced Develop. Analytics and Control at Festo SE & Co. KG During the project, a total of four autonomous picking stations will be set up for training the robots: Two at the KIT Institute for Material Handling and Logistics (IFL) and two at the Festo SE company based in Esslingen am Neckar.

Start-up DarwinAI and University of Waterloo from Canada are further partners

“DarwinAI is thrilled to provide our Explainable (XAI) platform to the FLAIROP project and pleased to work with such esteemed Canadian and German academic organizations and our industry partner, Festo. We hope that our XAI technology will enable high-value human-in-the-loop processes for this exciting project, which represents an important facet of our offering alongside our novel approach to Federated Learning.  Having our roots in academic research, we are enthusiastic about this collaboration and the industrial benefits of our new approach for a range of manufacturing customers”, says Sheldon Fernandez, CEO, DarwinAI.

“The University of Waterloo is ecstatic to be working with Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and a global industrial automation leader like Festo to bring the next generation of trustworthy artificial intelligence to manufacturing.  By harnessing DarwinAI’s Explainable AI (XAI) and Federated Learning, we can enable AI solutions to help support factory workers in their daily production tasks to maximize efficiency, productivity, and safety”, says Dr. Alexander Wong, Co-director of the Vision and Image Processing Research Group, University of Waterloo, and Chief Scientist at DarwinAI.

The FLAIROP (Federated Learning for Robot Picking) project is a partnership between Canadian and German organizations. The Canadian project partners focus on object recognition through Deep Learning, Explainable AI, and optimization, while the German partners contribute their expertise in robotics, autonomous grasping through Deep Learning, and data security.

  • KIT-IFL: consortium leadership, development grasp determination, development automatic learning data generation.
  • KIT-AIFB: Development of Federated Learning Framework
  • Festo SE & Co. KG: development of picking stations, piloting in real warehouse logistics
  • University of Waterloo (Canada): Development object recognition
  • Darwin AI (Canada): Local and Global Network Optimization, Automated Generation of Network Structures