Collaborative Robotics Offer Flexible Packaging Automation

Collaborative Robotics Offer Flexible Packaging Automation

That engineers would develop ways for humans and robots to co-exist, yes even collaborate, seemed inevitable. Why should we consign robots to cages as safety hazards when the future assuredly requires close collaboration. Therefore the burgeoning area of collaborative robotics or cobots.

I’m thinking not just about industrial applications. Robots surely will assist an aging population cope with everyday tasks in our (near) future of fewer people to populate those jobs.

Several of the “old guard” robotics companies have developed “co-bots” but I’ve watched the development of Universal Robots for some time. The company sponsored this blog for a while a few years ago. Here I’ve picked up on a couple of items. The UR marketing team was a bit surprised to discover that I have more than a passing interest in packaging. As a matter of fact, I noticed packaging as a likely growth area for automation about 18 years ago, and that feeling has been borne out.

One story concerns a packaging demonstration with a socially worthwhile goal mixed in. The other reports on a recent market study by ABI Research.

Universal Robots Solves Random Picking Challenge, Providing Food for At-Risk Youth

The challenge: Pick six differently sized food items randomly oriented on a moving conveyor and place each of these items into the same pouch. Then do this again 1,199 more times, ensuring each pouch has the same six items. This is the challenge Universal Robots and Allied Technology will address, quickly identifying and picking items – ranging widely from packs of Craisins to cans of beef ravioli – in Pack Expo’s Robotics Zone during the three-day show.

“Random picking is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after automation tasks from industries such as e-commerce, fulfillment centers and warehousing,” says Regional Sales Director of Universal Robots’ Americas division, Stuart Shepherd. “At Pack Expo, Universal Robots and Allied Technology will demonstrate how UR cobots can be quickly deployed in a compact, modular system, handling the entire process from box erecting, to vision-guided conveyor tracking, part picking, tote assembly, pouch filling and sealing, kitting and palletizing,” he says, adding how the packaging line is also a testament to the capabilities of Universal Robots’ growing number of Certified System Integrators (CSIs). “Allied Technology was able to quickly create this fully-automated solution. We are delighted to see our cobots competently integrated in so many new packaging applications now.”

Allied Technology and Universal Robots’ packaging line features four UR cobots equipped with products from the UR+ platform that certifies grippers, vision cameras, software, and other peripherals to work seamlessly with UR’s collaborative robot arms. The latest flexible grasping technology will be showcased by a UR5e with Piab’s new Kenos® KCS vacuum gripper  guided by a vision camera from UR+ partner Cognex.

Once completed, the 1,200 bags of food will be delivered to “Blessings in a Backpack” a leader in the movement to end childhood hunger, ensuring that children receiving free or subsidized school lunches during the week do not go hungry over the weekends. “We look forward to showcasing this demo that is meaningful in so many ways,” says Shepherd. “We are excited to partner with Blessings in a Backpack while also addressing the needs of the packaging industry with solutions that will simplify and fast-track cobot deployment on their lines.”

Unlike traditional robots caged away from show attendees, visitors to the UR booth are able to walk right up to the UR cobots and interact with them. The booth “playpen area” will feature several cobot arms including a U53e with Robotiq’s new UR+ certified E-Pick Vacuum Gripper, allowing attendees to explore on-the-spot programming. The gripper is one of the recent additions in a rapidly expanding UR+ product portfolio that now includes no less than 195 UR+ certified products with 400+ companies participating in the UR+ developer program.

Market Leadership

Meanwhile, Universal Robots maintains top spot in ABI Research’s Ranking of Cobot Companies in Industrial Applications; Doosan, Techman Robot, and Precise Automation are closing in.

This news originates with ABI Research. There are well over 50 manufacturers of collaborative robots (cobots) worldwide, but only a handful of these companies have so far deployed cobots on any meaningful level of scale. Tens of thousands of cobots have been sold as of 2019 and earned US$500 million in annual revenue for world markets. In its new Industrial Collaborative Robots Competitive Assessment, global tech market advisory firm, ABI Research finds Universal Robots (UR) to be the clear forerunner, particularly in implementation.

The Industrial Collaborative Robots Competitive Assessment analyzed and ranked 12 collaborative robot vendors in the industry – ABB, Aubo Robotics, Automata, Doosan Robotics, FANUC, Franka Emika, Kuka AG, Precise Automation, Productive Robotics, Techman Robot, Universal Robots, and Yaskawa Motoman – using ABI Research’s proven, unbiased innovation/implementation criteria framework. For this competitive assessment, innovation criteria included payload, software, Ergonomics and human-machine interaction, experimentation and safety; implementation criteria focused on units and revenue, cost and ROI, partnerships, value-added services, and the number of employees.

“Market leaders in cobots generally have well-developed cobot rosters, in many cases backed up by an ecosystem platform that integrates applications, accessories, and end-of-arm-tooling (EOAT) solutions in with the base hardware,” said Rian Whitton, Senior Analyst at ABI Research. With 37,000 cobots sold so far, UR leads, followed by Taiwanese provider Techman with 10,000, and Korea-based Doosan with over 2,000. Precise Automation, which uses an advanced direct drive solution to develop faster collaborative robots, was cited as the most innovative of the 12 providers, just edging out Universal Robots, who claimed the overall top spot due to their significant lead in implementation.

There are several companies that are too young to be challenging the dominant parties in the cobot market but are developing new and disruptive technologies that will allow them rise to prominence in the years to come. Productive Robotics is a case-in-point. The California-based developer has an arm with inbuilt vision, 7 axes for superior flexibility, long reach, and a very affordable price point, but has yet to deploy at scale. Automata, a British company that develops a ‘desk-top’ cobot costing less than US$7,000, is significantly lowering the barriers to entry for smaller actors and is championing the use of open-source middleware like ROS to program cobots for industrial use-cases. Germany-based Franka Emika and Chinese-American provider Aubo Robotics also represent relatively new entrants to the market who are building on the success of Universal Robots and are beginning to compete with them.

Perhaps surprisingly, while the major industrial robotics providers have developed cobot lines, they have generally been less successful in marketing them or gaining market traction relative to the pure-cobot developers. In part, this is down to focus. While collaborative robots are valuable, they generally suit deployments and use-cases with smaller shipments and a wider variety of small and large end-users. For industrial players like ABB, FANUC, KUKA AG and Yaskawa Motoman, their client-base tends to be large industrial players who buy fixed automation solution through bulk orders. Aside from this, all four of these companies are competing extensively for greater shipment figures in China, where the cobot oppurtunity relative to the market for traditional industrial systems is much less apparent than in Europe or North America.

“Though many of the cobots deployed by these companies are impressive, and they have a lot of software services, the high-cost and lack of easy use among their systems largely defeat the current value proposition of cobots, making them the laggards in this competitive assessment.” says Whitton.

Looking forward, the larger industrial players are likely to improve their relative position, as future growth in cobots rests on scaling up and large deployments. “Universal Robots, though likely to remain the market leader for the foreseeable future, will be increasingly competing on an even footing with near-peer cobot developers, who are already developing second-generation cobots with significant hardware improvements. Meanwhile, some more innovative companies will be able to accelerate adoption through price decreases, improved flexibility, and common platforms to retrofit collaborative capability on industrial robots,” Whitton concluded.

These findings are from ABI Research’s Industrial Collaborative Robots Competitive Assessment report. This report is part of the company’s Industrial Solution, which includes research, data, and analyst insights. Competitive Assessment reports offer comprehensive analysis of implementation strategies and innovation, coupled with market share analysis, to offer unparalleled insight into a company’s performance and standing in comparison to its competitors.

Industrial Automation User Conference Week

Industrial Automation User Conference Week

My wife’s family took me off for a week-long vacation to the beach last week. Eight days of much needed rest after a bunch of travel and a hectic (meaning wet) spring soccer season.

Last week was also Rockwell Automation TechED. That conference was once open only to distributer and integrator tech people. Several years ago it opened to media and became quite a thing for a few years. Last year I received an invitation to attend but they said that there was no media program. The timing was bad for me, so I passed. This year, there was no word at all. And I saw no news.

There are several industrial automation user conferences this week. PTC invited me to its conference in Boston. Then I was invited to Honeywell User Group (HUG). Then there were other invitations. Busy week. I initially told PTC I would attend, then putting it in my calendar, I realized that the week included my wedding anniversary. It’s big number (as in large). My better sense prevailed and I’m watching both of those conferences from afar.

So far this week, Honeywell Process Solutions has made a big announcement with some innovative product releases. Rockwell Automation, which owns about 8% of PTC and is banking on the partnership to bring its software into the new age, also issued a release. I’m still figuring that one out.

Honeywell Proclaims New Approach to Engineering

• Experion PKS Highly Integrated Virtual Environment (HIVE) significantly simplifies control system design, implementation and lifecycle management while reducing cost

• Market-first solution uniquely decouples the assignment of input/output (IO) modules and control strategies from specific controllers, and leverages IT capabilities in customers’ own data centers

My take on this announcement considers the HIVE product suite part of the growing trend under the umbrella of “digital twin.” Other companies have some somewhat similar products, but what I’ve found is that each company moves the ball forward a little more in a seemingly endless cycle of innovation. Honeywell labels it an evolution of the company’s flagship Experion Process Knowledge System (PKS).

Experion PKS HIVE uses Honeywell’s LEAP project execution principles, software, and networking to unchain control applications from physical equipment, and controllers from physical IO. This enables control systems to be engineered and implemented in less time, at lower cost and risk, and with simpler, modular builds. The solution also transforms the way control systems are maintained over their lifecycle, shifting day-to-day management of servers to a centralized data center, where experts and established protocols mitigate cybersecurity risk, allowing plant engineers to focus more proactively on optimization of their control systems.

Experion PKS HIVE incorporates three elements – IT HIVE, IO HIVE and Control HIVE – which can be used individually or collectively, in tandem with customers’ existing systems and infrastructure:

• Experion PKS IT HIVE centralizes up to 80% of the IT infrastructure traditionally used in project engineering to lower project delivery and lifecycle costs, better leverage skills, and drive consistent physical and cybersecurity management across an enterprise.

• Experion PKS IO HIVE provides flexible IO and control distribution enabling the control system to become a natural extension of process equipment and to facilitate modular and parallel project execution.

• Experion PKS Control HIVE uniquely applies control containers to provide flexibility and standardization of control hardware platform, control location, and control engineering. With multiple physically controllers operating as part of a Experion PKS Control HIVE, control engineering is dramatically simplified through automated load balancing.

“In developing Experion PKS HIVE, Honeywell worked closely with customers across the chemical, refining and oil and gas industries,” said Jason Urso, chief technology officer, Honeywell Process Solutions. “Many of these organizations want a more efficient approach to control system engineering, yet one that can be adopted incrementally and used interchangeably with their existing systems and infrastructure. Experion PKS HIVE provides these benefits and is truly a distributed control as it applies and geographically distributes technology to where it is needed.”

Experion PKS HIVE shifts IO to the field and makes it fully accessible to any controller, taking individual physical controllers and distributing the load so that they appear as a single controller to eliminate complexity. The solution distributes IT compute from onsite to offsite providing a seamless operations experience.

The Experion PKS IT HIVE and IO HIVE can be ordered now, with deliveries beginning Q1 2020. Experion PKS Control HIVE will be available in the second half of 2020.

Rockwell Automation Emphasizes PTC Partnership

Rockwell Automation announces its “unique combination of IT and OT software accelerates customers’ Digital Transformation Initiatives.” It says its solutions-oriented approach simplifies how manufacturers achieve business outcomes that transform operational processes, workforce productivity and efficiency.

Showcasing solutions during LiveWorx this week the company highlights:

Enterprise Operational Intelligence – cuts manufacturing costs and increases flexibility and agility of manufacturing networks by providing real-time manufacturing performance management across the industrial enterprise.

Digital Workforce Productivity – heightens productivity, improves quality, and avoids safety and compliance risk by equipping workers with actionable, augmented intelligence.

Intelligent Asset Optimization – reduces downtime and maximizes asset utilization through real-time monitoring, diagnostics, and predictive and prescriptive analytics into asset capacity, performance, and health status.

Scalable Production Management – lowers cost of inventory, improves quality, and compliance and accelerates time to market with effective planning and control of production processes.

Industrial Automation User Conference Week

Open Source Faces Off Versus Proprietary Software

Two Polish software developers engage in conversation weekly on The Podcast. One wrote the original version of Nozbe the Getting Things Done app I use. Michael Sliwinski talked of using open source software to help him write his app and start his company. His Apple developer Radek Pietruszewski in episode 157 discussed how they wrote a piece of database code they dubbed WatermelonDB and released it into open source on GitHub.

I talk about the benefits of open source as an introduction to things I gleaned from last week’s annual trip to the Sacramento, CA area and the Inductive Automation Ignition Community Conference. Community was the operative word as the gathering of several hundred (I never heard an exact count, but the rumor was there were more than 600) integrators and users crowded into the Harris Center in Folsom for conversation, training, and updates.

On a side note, I’ve been unusually swamped with my annual project of assigning referees to high school and US Soccer youth contests. It seems as if half of the preliminary work I put in assigning before the season were washed away in an unusually wet late summer. Rescheduling is hell. Referees are tired of hearing from me. But I have only 2.5 weeks left in the high school season and two weeks beyond that will close the club season. Then I take a six-month break. Therefore, my energy level for writing has been sapped and the frequency here and on my podcast have suffered.

Founder and CEO Steve Hechtman betrayed his usual laid back demeanor talking about company growth and especially the latest release—Ignition 8—to be released in a few months. I have few details, but developers solved many platform problems caused by integrators pushing the envelop of HMI SCADA software.

Chief Strategy Officer Don Pearson told how the company has always embodied the OT/IT convergence meme with Hechtman coming from an OT background as an integrator and co-developers and now co-directors of software engineering Carl Gould and Colby Clegg were trained in IT technologies.

Pearson began the discussion of open source that continued throughout the conference. While Inductive Automation has always been a proponent of open standards—it still fully supports OPC UA, for example—it is also an open source user and contributor. The technologies strongly promoted at the conference were MQTT (a transport protocol) and Sparkplug (an information carrier in this case used to communicate Ignition tag information from source to consumer). Developer Cirrus Link has placed Sparkplug in the open source Eclipse Foundation.

Speakers talked with assurance about open source, but there was a thread of defensiveness in the discussion, too. Pearson quoted Maeterlinck, “At every crossroad on the way that leads to the future, each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past.” Eclipse Foundation Executive Director Mike Milinkovich proclaimed, “Software is eating the world, and open source is eating software.”

I like both open source and open standards. They both have propelled industry enabling innovation and limiting lock-in. I remember downloading the first Java JDK in the 90s and trying out the eclipse platform in early 2002. All pretty cool stuff. The Inductive Automation adoption of open source is refreshing in the industry.

Here are a few bullet points from the Carl-Colby show introducing Ignition 8:

  • Building on the past, but with a new beginning
  • New platform:
  • Revamped tag system to reduce memory overload
  • New scripting app
  • Subscription and data model
  • Extensibility
  • Dynamic writable UDT parameters
  • Deployment architecture, true project inheritance
  • Project resource management
  • Ignition perspective, new mobile module, built up from ground new

I really should add that while Ignition is very good software, most of the people at the conference told me that they were enticed into the system by the pricing. From the beginning, Inductive Automation decided to upset the software pricing model prevalent in the industry. It is a growing company…

Sepasoft

Inductive had acquired an MES company, integrated with Ignition, and has now spun it off into a separate company run by Tom Hechtman, brother to Steve. Its modular software includes many typical MES applications such as track and trace, workflow, OEE, recipe management, and more. Hechtman discussed a Lean Six Sigma tool kit. He noted the staff has doubled in the nine years since acquisition. It is an ISA 95 and B2MML solution. And also now a MESA International member.

Other notes from the conference

Table top exhibits from the conference sponsors were always packed with curious engineers seeking solutions.

Opto 22’s VP Marketing Benson Hougland told me they can’t build the Groov EPIC PLC fast enough for demand. That product combined with Ignition is a powerful control and SCADA platform—as sales attest.

Albert Rooyakkers, founder/CEO of Bedrock Automation told me that his sub-$1000 controller is selling well. Bedrock specializes in secure and hardened controllers—ideal for power, pipeline, and other such applications. He told me, “Secure SCADA with Ignition is coming.” His key word is secure.

Salesforce Another Meeting of IT and OT

Salesforce Another Meeting of IT and OT

Here I go to yet another IT conference to talk convergence and platform. Salesforce invited me to its summer marketing conference in June and promised an interview with a Vice President. I could take my wife out to a good anniversary dinner, visit family, and go to a tech conference with a good interview all on one trip. Too good to pass up.

This was the Salesforce Connections conference. Not as big as Dreamforce in San Francisco, but still quite large by our standards in manufacturing.

Salesforce is more than the CRM company it was. Many acquisitions later, it has assembled an array of technology. Like all tech companies, it has a platform. In fact due to its open APIs, you could use it, too. Some time ago, I interviewed the CEO of a manufacturing ERP company called Kenandy that was build upon the Salesforce platform. Rootstriker, another ERP company build on the Salesforce platform, recently acquired Kenandy.

Featured in one keynote was an application by MTD, a manufacturer of lawn tractors (Cub Cadet, etc.). No, Salesforce doesn’t run machines. It does help connect the manufacturer with its end customers and then with its dealers with feedback to the manufacturer.

The idea is that customers do online research and so need to be reached in many ways (thus Salesforce marketing). MTD erected an online store on the Salesforce platform (in simplified terms) for direct to the consumer interaction. An order is fulfilled by the local dealer. The dealer still gets margin and relationship and as an extra added bonus, the opportunity for service business. Linking all back to MTD, it gets to know the customer, satisfies the dealer, plus receiving data from the service business feeds back into product development.

Achyut Jajoo, Salesforce VP automotive/manufacturing, told me industry is moving from product centric to system, e.g., autonomous vehicles, mobility services, digital signals; factory automation, geographic expansion, intelligence, vehicle sales. Mobility services lead to transaction service—over air updates, location based services.

He noted that people start online and mostly know what they want before visiting a dealer. Other manufacturing customers tying their whole sales systems back to manufacturing include John Deere and Ecolab.

“State of the Connected Customer” report

Before I went to the conference, Saleforce sent me this interesting report—a survey of over 6,700 consumers and business buyers worldwide that looks at the ever changing landscape of customers’ expectations, the emerging technologies influencing these expectations and the role trust plays in the customer experience.

Customers today are energized by tech innovations — but also plagued by deepening distrust of the companies that provide them. They have high expectations about what makes a great customer experience, and not a lot of patience for companies that fail to deliver.

These trends impact every company, regardless of whether they sell to consumers or business buyers purchasing on behalf of their companies. In this research, “customers” is an aggregate of both consumer and business buyer responses.

The report dives into the nuances of this tricky customer landscape. Here are five of the high-level findings our research brought to light:

1. Customer experience matters even more than you think

Eighty percent of customers say that the experience a company provides is as important as its products or services. A majority take this sentiment a step further by voting with their wallets; 57% have stopped buying from a company because a competitor provided a better experience.

2. B2B expectations mirror B2C standards

The concept of “B2Me” isn’t new, but it’s gathering steam. Eighty-two percent of business buyers want the same experience as when they’re buying for themselves. But only 27% say companies generally excel at meeting their standards for an overall B2B experience, signaling ample room to improve.

3. Companies face new connected mandates

For 84% of customers, being treated like a person — and not a number — is very important to win their business. Another 70% say connected processes are very important to win their business (such as seamless handoffs between departments and channels, or contextualized engagement based on earlier interactions).

Even before a purchase, personalization is hugely important; 59% of customers say tailored engagement based on past interactions is very important to win their business.

While they buy, 78% of business buyers seek salespeople that act as trusted advisors with knowledge of their needs and industry.

4. Technology sets new benchmarks for innovation

Real innovation, not lip service, is a deciding factor for most customers. 56% of customers (including 66% of business buyers) actively seek to buy from the most innovative companies.

While some emerging technologies are only starting to take root, a majority of customers say these technologies have transformed (or are actively transforming) their expectations: the Internet of Things (60%), voice-activated personal assistants (59%), and AI (51%).

5. Facing a crisis of trust: finding the balance between personalization and privacy

Sixty-two percent of customers say they’re more afraid of their data being compromised now than they were two years ago — and nearly half of customers (45%) feel confused about how companies use their data.

82% of customers will share relevant information about themselves in exchange for connections between their digital and in-person experiences.

81% of customers will share relevant information about themselves in exchange for more consultative help from salespeople.

85% of customers will share relevant information about themselves in exchange for proactive customer service.

For 92% of customers, the ability to control what personal information is collected makes them more likely to trust a company with that information.

Honeywell User Group All About Connections

Honeywell User Group All About Connections

It’s all about connections. That’s the direction I went four years ago when I renamed my blog and set out on my own. Manufacturing Connection (as general a word as I could buy the domain for–not only factory but also process industries).

Honeywell User Group is this week. I had other meetings with paying clients, so I’m not there. However here is some news from the event, and I’ll throw in a bonus link to Control Global whose team is distributing a “show daily”.

Enabling industrial companies to employ Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) today to address ongoing operational challenges will be the overriding topic for Honeywell Process Solutions’ (HPS) 42nd annual Honeywell Users Group (HUG) for the Americas.

More than 1300 delegates from across the oil and gas, chemical, pulp and paper, and metals and mining sectors are attending HUG, which runs today through Friday. The event features numerous displays of the newest technologies along with dozens of Honeywell- and customer-led sessions and technical discussions.

“Challenges facing manufacturers and plant operators today have not dramatically changed in the last 40 years. Safety, efficiency, reliability, productivity and security continue to drive innovation across industries,” said Vimal Kapur, president of HPS. “What has changed is our ability to better address these challenges. Today, we are able to leverage the power of the internet to employ a broader range of data to transform operations. At Honeywell, we call it the power of connected and specifically for HPS customers, it is Honeywell Connected Plant.”

Attendees at HUG will experience a range of new technologies and solutions that can help them enable the quick and effective adoption of the industrial internet of things (IIoT) at their plants. From technology displays in the demonstration room to a range of presentations from Honeywell experts as well as customer case studies, the Connected Plant will be front and center throughout the symposium.

“Manufacturers are looking to increase production from existing assets while managing their finite investment dollars. Connected Plant can help them do exactly that,” Kapur said.

In addition to the Connected Plant solutions, attendees will experience many of Honeywell’s newest industrial automation technologies including:

  • Experion Elevate is real-time supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) delivered as a secure and scalable service, reducing the need for on-site hardware and support.
  • LEAP for Operations extends LEAP project efficiency principles to optimize, simplify, and run ongoing operations more efficiently.
  • Honeywell Trace is documentation and change management software that reduces configuration errors, improves troubleshooting, reduces unplanned shutdowns and improves auditing and regulatory compliance.
  • Secure Media Exchange (SMX) reduces cyber security risk and operational disruption by monitoring, protecting and logging use of removable media such as USBs.
  • Experion Unit Operations Suite leverages a new ControlEdge Unit Operations Controller along with Experion Batch Manager to optimize pharmaceutical, specialty chemical, and food & beverage applications.
  • Predict RT is a novel, intelligent data analytics framework transforming the refining industry from traditional, reactive degradation management, to real-time, proactive, corrosion management through online, real-time corrosion prediction and monitoring.
  • Enterprise Risk Manager provides cross-plant cyber risk visibility across all site Risk Managers, providing a solution that measures and manages high priority industrial cyber risk.
  • ControlEdge RTU provides improved management of field assets through simplified and efficient remote monitoring, diagnostics, and management. It reduces equipment monitoring and diagnostics from hours to minutes, and integration with Experion SCADA reduces configuration time by 80%.
  • Open Virtual Engineering Platform (VEP) is a secure and reliable cloud engineering service for convenient and instant access to an off-process full functional Experion system at any release, accessible from anywhere at the lowest total cost of ownership.