Cobot and Mobile drive robot market growth

Cobot and Mobile drive robot market growth

I have received three different robotic market research reports from two different research firms. Both of these firms seem to do the work that it takes. I’ve done some private contract research and analysis and have an grasp on the work it takes. These reports have major agreements and a few different takes. The short take is that we finally have momentum in new forms of robotics–and that is a good thing.

[Note: In moving this post from my text editor this morning, I inadvertently had left the setting as “publish” instead of “draft”, therefore you received an email with no link. Oops. Sorry.]

Cobot Market Growth

Cobot Market to account for 30% of Total Robot Market by 2027 according to market research firm Interact Analysis.

  • The growth rate of collaborative robots is leading the robotics industry
  • Logistics will surpass automotive to be the second largest end user of cobots by 2023, with electronics in first place
  • In the next five years, the fastest growing regions for collaborative robot shipments will be China and the USA

Market intelligence firm Interact Analysis has released a new market report – The Collaborative Robot Market – 2019 – which indicates strong and sustained growth for the collaborative robot industry.

In 2018, global revenues from cobot production exceeded $550 million. This was almost a 60% increase over 2017; and over 19,000 cobots were shipped. Interact Analysis forecasts that revenues for cobots will reach $5.6 billion in 2027, accounting for almost one third of the total robotics market, and that <5kg and 5-9 kg cobots, popular in small to medium-sized industrial settings, will represent the majority of sales in 2023.

Material handling, assembly and pick & place will be the three biggest applications of collaborative robots. But these functions, which accounted for 75% of cobot revenues in 2018, will drop to below of 70% total revenues by 2023, as other functions for cobots are developed. The use of cobots in non-industrial applications will play a significant role in the coming years – in sectors such as life sciences, logistics, and the hospitality sector. In part this is because they are flexible and easy to set up, making them attractive to smaller companies which may not have previously considered using robots.

Labour shortages and the drive to improve efficiency mean that China will be the fastest growing region for cobot shipments. The demand for simple, cost-effective, entry-level robots, together with different regulations surrounding industrial equipment in China has fuelled the growth of Chinese cobot manufacturers who only supply their local market. This has arguably distorted the market figures. Interact Analysis has responded to this by including in its report two data sets, one with and one without the impact of China. It is important to note, however, that growth outside of China is still forecast to rise at a CAGR of over 30% in the next 5 years.

Maya Xiao, lead analyst on cobots for Interact Analysis, says: “The collaborative robot market is still relatively immature, but Interact Analysis has identified clear potential growth areas, both in industrial and non-industrial settings, enabling manufacturers to respond effectively, and take full advantage of what we predict to be an area which will occupy a significant market share in the coming years”.

Robot Market Declines then Rebounds

  • Automotive and smartphone production declines played a significant part in 2019 slowdown
  • New applications, lower prices and wider use cases will lead to a significant upturn by 2023
  • China shows its strength, both domestically and in attracting external investment

Market intelligence firm Interact Analysis has released a new market report focusing on the industrial robot market. The research outlines reasons to be positive in the sector, despite an immediate, short term decline in revenues.

The report goes into detail around specific headwinds that have challenged growth within the sector, including the slowing global economy, trade wars and uncertainty in the global automotive industry. Compared to 2017, where revenues associated with industrial robots increased by 20%, forecasted declines of 4.3 per cent in 2019 have caused some concern.

Jan Zhang, research director at Interact Analysis, said: “Automotive and smartphone production declines play a significant part in this downturn. As the largest end-user segment for industrial robots – accounting for over 30% share of revenues – any downturn in this area is always keenly felt in automation and robot investment.

“Despite this, however, there are reasons to be optimistic. Long term drivers, both for industrial robots and for automation as a whole, remain very strong. Growth is expected to pick up on 2020, and then accelerate further in 2021 due to new industry applications, lower prices and wider use cases.”

The report’s findings, based on interviews with all leading robotics companies (as well as a wide selection of innovative robot start-ups, system integrators and component suppliers), highlight the importance of new robot types in fuelling this growth. In particular, cobots – collaborative robots – which work alongside humans are finding favour in industries not traditionally associated with the use of robots. Among those industries identified are food and beverage, logistics, packaging and life sciences.

“Growth in these industries can’t fully compensate for the decrease in the automotive industry, but it does warrant optimism for the future,” said Jan.

A central element to the report’s findings is the impact China is having on the global industrial robot market in 2019. While Japan remains the largest producer of industrial robots, with an estimated 45% of total production, there has been significant growth in production capacity and output in China. This can be attributed a number of factors, including Chinese vendors entering the market and inward investment from traditional industrial giants like ABB, Fanuc, KUKA and YASKAWA.

Jan added: “While it is true growth of industrial robot revenues has slowed down, the reasons for this are clear and, for the most part, beyond the control of the vendors. Despite this, however, there is evidence that the industry is diversifying and putting the foundations in place for significant future growth, making this one of the more exciting spaces to operate in.”

Mobile Systems Drive Robot Market Growth

Robotics Industry Set for Seismic Change as Growth Shifts from Fixed Automation to Mobile Systems in Enterprise.

Of the 8 million robots shipped in 2030, nearly 6 million will be mobile.

The robotics market is set to transform over the next 10 years, based on the most comprehensive robotics tracker yet released by global tech market advisory firm, ABI Research. There will be enormous growth across all subsectors, highlighted in a total market valuation of US$277 billion by 2030. That growth will not be distributed evenly, however. By 2022, the burgeoning mobile robotics space will start to overtake the traditional industrial robotics market. Currently, mobile autonomy is concentrated in material handling within the supply chain, but mobile robots are set to touch every sector of the global economy for a wide range of use-cases.

“Everyone talks about self-driving passenger vehicles, but mobile automation is far more developed in intralogistics for fulfillment and industry,” said Rian Whitton, Senior Analyst at ABI Research. “The automation of material handling will see huge segments of the global forklift, tow truck, and indoor vehicle market consumed by robotics vendors and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) that bring indoor autonomy.”

Amazon Robotics is the leader that has driven growth in mobile robotics for the last 7 years since their acquisition of Kiva Systems. With an estimated 256,000 automated guided vehicles deployed to date, Amazon holds close to 50% of material handling robot market share and is broadening its portfolio of robot subtypes with autonomous mobile robots for transport and delivery. Other major Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) developers like Quicktron, JD.com, Geek, and Grey Orange are deploying thousands of robots yearly, while Automated Mobile Robot (AMR) developers are just beginning to scale up. Brain Corp. has deployed 5,000 systems primarily in retail, and BlueBotics has deployed some 2,000 robots for intralogistics in and around the supply chain. Meanwhile MiR, an AMR company acquired by Teradyne in 2018, is beginning to achieve growth rates in excess of the company’s other robotics acquisition of major cobot developer, Universal Robots.

The distinction between AGVs and AMRs can be contested, but AMRs do not require external infrastructure to localize themselves and are built with sensors and cameras to self-navigate their environments. Currently, AGVs represent the majority of mobile robot shipments, but by 2030, this will change. While there will be 2.5 million AGVs shipped in 2030, the total shipments of AMRs will reach 2.9 million in the same year. This is due to the declining costs of superior navigation and the desire to build flexibility into robotic fleets. “Many new verticals, like hospitality, delivery, and infrastructure, will demand systems that do not require external physical infrastructure to move about. While AGVs will thrive in intralogistics for fulfillment, especially in greenfield warehouses, AMRs solve the challenges faced by many end-users by offering incremental automation that does not require a complete change of environmental infrastructure,” Whitton explains.

In a major example of automation extending to new and important vehicle-types, the shipments of automated forklifts are set to grow from 4,000 in 2020 to 455,000 in 2030, with a CAGR of 58.9%. Meanwhile, the revenue for all mobile robotics is expected to exceed US$224 billion by 2030, compared to US$39 billion for industrial and collaborative systems.

Leading the way in mobile robotics are French manufacturer Balyo (which partnered with Amazon), Seegrid (who have sold over 800 units) and a number of smaller actors that are just beginning to scale. This opportunity is leading vehicle manufacturers such as Toyota, Yale & Hyster, and Raymond to partner with robotics companies to offer automation to manufacturers. Given the global shipments for forklifts is close to 1 million, half of all shipments could be automated by 2030.

Another significant sector for mobile automation will be maintenance and cleaning. There are already over 5,000 autonomous floor scrubbers in U.S. retail stores and commercial buildings. With Softbank’s deployment of mobile cleaners for offices being rolled out in Asia and the United States, cleaning robots will become a common sight within the service economy.

Even more esoteric form factors, like quadrupeds, are expected to increase significantly for data collection purposes, particularly for real estate, construction, and industrial inspection. ABI Research predicts that quadrupeds, exemplified by vendors like Boston Dynamics, Zoa Robotics, ANYbotics, and Ghost Robotics, will increase to 29,000 yearly shipments by 2030.  “As mature sectors of the robotics industry achieve growth more in line with established technology markets, mobile robotics are set to create lasting transformative effects across the supply chain and will become increasingly ubiquitous throughout the global economy,” Whitton concludes.

These findings are from ABI Research’s Commercial and Industrial Robotics market data report. This report is part of the company’s Industrial, Collaborative & Commercial Robotics research service, which includes research, data, and ABI Insights. Market Dataspreadsheets are composed of deep data, market share analysis, and highly segmented, service-specific forecasts to provide detailed insight where opportunities lie.

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.

Industry In Thailand Thriving, Especially Robotics

Industry In Thailand Thriving, Especially Robotics

Ms. Ajarin Pattanapanchai, Deputy Secretary General, of Thailand Board of Investment, talked with me last week about the state of industry and innovation in that country.

She told me that productivity in Thailand is quite high, citing Toyota assembly as an example where it produces a car every 55 seconds in Japan and a nearly equal 58 seconds in Thailand.

While the main topic was robotics, which I will discuss below, she also pointed out that Thailand has a large petrochemical complex—the 5th largest in the world—with the environment a considerable concern. So, the government agency partnered for a real-time monitoring of air direct to the agency.

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Given Thailand’s dominance in ASEAN automotive markets, the country has seen an increase in investments from companies such as robotics giant Nachi and other firms providing technology and supply chain products to Thailand’s growing automotive markets. Growth of the robotics industry in Thailand is expected to increase, as the vehicle manufacturing industry in the Kingdom continues to expand in both commercial and private use motorcycles, trucks, and cars.

Robotic and Automation Machinery

Currently, there are more than 60 companies producing robotic and automation machinery in Thailand, such as Eureka Automation, CT Asia Robotic, Yutaka Robot Systems, Ryoei, and Robosis. These companies have developed and produced industrial robots that meet international standards and are gaining ground with the competition because of their high quality and competitive pricing.

Just last year, ABB opened a Robot Applications Center in Thailand and introduced “YuMi,” the world’s first truly collaborative dual-arm robot. Other companies who have located robotics operations in Thailand include:

  • Globax Robot System (Thailand) – a Japanese company that produces Robotic Production Line;
  • Kuka Robotics – a German company, a world leader in robotics systems, which has located a business operation in Thailand;
  • Fillomatic Global Industries – an Indonesian company that produces robotic bottle filling machines and robotic bottle capping machines;
  • Cal-comp Electronics –a Taiwanese company that produces robotic computers.

Thailand has the highest concentration of automotive companies in Asia and the 12th largest automotive production capacity in the world, directly providing vehicles for Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other nearby and ASEAN countries. Automotive companies with production facilities in Thailand include: Ford, Isuzu, Mazda, Mitsubishi, BMW, General Motors, Daihatsu, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Tata, Toyota, and Volvo.

Thailand Imports

In 2016, Thai imports of industrial robotics and automation systems are estimated to top $47.3 million USD, and this number is expected to grow. The imported machinery has mostly been used for automotive, electrical appliances and electronics, and in the food processing industry.

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Both automation and robotics have gained an important foothold in Thailand’s growth and development. Many universities in Thailand offer courses for students interested in this field, with the most specialized course being offered by the Institute of Field Robotics (FIBO) at King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Thonburi.

Many robots developed in-house by universities and private companies, in both the industrial and service categories, have also found use in real world applications. Mahidol University’s Bartlab Rescue Robot, Hive Ground’s Flare Stack Inspection Drone and Zeabus Autonomous Underwater vehicle (AUV), and CT Asia Robotics’s Dinsow Robot are some prominent examples. Given these advances, it is evident that Thai researchers and engineers possess the necessary skills and technical knowhow, and that Thailand is ready to be a hub for investment in these areas.

The country is a hub for automotive and electrical and electronics production in ASEAN. Thailand ranked 12th globally for motor vehicle production and 6th for commercial vehicle production in 2015. As for the electrical and electronics industry, Thailand has experienced a 7% growth in export value as measured from 2011, reaching an impressive figure of THB 435 billion (USD 12 billion) in 2015. The country is also renowned for being the second largest global producer and exporter of data storage units like Hard Disk Drives (HDD).

The BOI recognizes the importance of automation and robotics and they belong to the future industries promoted under the Super Cluster category. Examples of activities eligible for incentives in these industries include microelectronics design, embedded system design, and embedded software. Recently, the BOI approved additional activities to expedite investment projects in these future industries.

High value-added software development is one of those additional activities and it includes developing system software for advanced technology devices (including business process management) and developing industrial software used to support manufacturing. Investors can apply for general incentives that include an 8 year income tax exemption and import duty on machinery, and raw materials. However, they can apply for incentives under the Super Cluster policy if they meet certain specific criteria and not only get an 8 year income tax exemption, but also 50% Corporate Income Tax (CIT) reduction for 5 years. Non-tax incentives include the right to own land and work permits for expatriates.

Industry In Thailand Thriving, Especially Robotics

Industrial Robotics Market Grew in 2015

Few conversations or panels at the recently completed ARC Industry Forum touched directly on discrete automation. That is, with one notable exception. Robotics. Several people brought up a surge in orders for industrial robotics.

Aside from human-robot collaboration, not much has been exciting in the industrial space. I keep hoping for some advances using some of the innovation being explored in the consumer space.

But I looked up the latest from the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and learned that robot orders and shipments in North America set new records in 2015. A study of the numbers, though, reveals that the drivers were the same old drivers–automotive industry with coating/dispensing, material handling, and spot welding leading the charge.

Industrial Robotic Sales

A total of 31,464 robots valued at $1.8 billion were ordered from North American companies during 2015, an increase of 14% in units and 11% in dollars over 2014. Robot shipments also set new records, with 28,049 robots valued at $1.6 billion shipped to North American customers in 2015. Shipments grew 10% in units and nine percent in dollars over the previous records set in 2014.

The automotive industry was the primary driver of growth in 2015, with robot orders increasing 19% year over year. Non-automotive robot orders grew five percent over 2014. The leading non-automotive industry in 2015 in terms of order growth was Semiconductors and Electronics at 35%.

According to Alex Shikany, Director of Market Analysis for RIA, the fastest growing applications for robot orders in North America in 2015 were Coating and Dispensing (+49%), Material Handling (+24%), and Spot Welding (+22%). RIA estimates that some 260,000 robots are now at use in North American factories, which is third to Japan and China in robot use.

The recent record performance by the robotics market in North America is concurrent with falling unemployment. Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the unemployment rate in the United States reached 4.9%, its lowest level since February of 2008.

“Today there are more opportunities than ever before in the robotics industry,” said Jeff Burnstein, President of RIA. “The continuing growth in robotics is opening many new job opportunities for people who can program, install, run, and maintain robots. In fact, if you look closer at the jobs discussion, automation is helping to save and create jobs. A lot of companies tell us they wouldn’t be in business without robotics and related automation.”

Burnstein noted that the RIA and its sister group AIA – Advancing Vision + Imaging, are seeing the impacts of the growth in demand for automation in upcoming events like the International Collaborative Robots Workshop and The Vision Show, slated for May 3-5, 2016 in Boston.

“Collaborative robots are the hottest topic in robotics today, and we are expecting a strong turnout in Boston for the workshop,” he said. “With interest in vision and imaging at an all-time high, AIA expects its flagship trade show, The Vision Show, to draw record attendance this year,” Burnstein added. Visit Robotics Online and Vision Online respectively for more information on these two collocated events.

Industrial Robotics Innovation and Farewell to Security Pioneers

Industrial Robotics Innovation and Farewell to Security Pioneers

Eric and Joann ByresI interrupt this blog to say good-bye and best wishes to industrial control systems security pioneers Eric and Joann Byres. They have been through a couple of iterations of entrepreneurship and had recently sold Tofino to Belden. They are leaving that company, taking some time off, and then looking for their next adventure. I appreciate the intense security conversations over the past 10-12 years. Check out the final blog post.

And, now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Industrial Robotics Once Again a Place for Innovation

Some industrial robots are hulking, highly specialized pieces of machinery that are cordoned off by cages from human factory workers.

But manufacturers have also begun experimenting with a new generation of “cobots” designed to work side-by-side with humans, and University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers are playing an important role in making these human-robot collaborations more natural and efficient.

Bilge Mutlu, an assistant professor of computer sciences, is working with counterparts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to determine best practices for effectively integrating human-robot teams within manufacturing environments. Their research is funded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of its National Robotics Initiative program.

Furniture maker Steelcase, a global company headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is also a partner. “Working with world-class research universities like UW is critical to our strategy to evolve our industrial systems and develop industry-leading capabilities,” says Steelcase’s Edward Vander Bilt. “Our hope with this research is that we will learn how to extend human-robot collaboration more broadly across our operations.”

In recent years, the robotics industry has introduced new platforms that are less expensive and intended to be easier to reprogram and integrate into manufacturing. Steelcase owns four next-generation robots based on a platform called Baxter, made by Rethink Robotics. Each Baxter robot has two arms and a tablet-like panel for “eyes” that provide cues to help human workers anticipate what the robot will do next.

“This new family of robotic technology will change how manufacturing is done,” says Mutlu. “New research can ease the transition of these robots into manufacturing by making human-robot collaboration better and more natural as they work together.”

Mutlu directs UW-Madison’s Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory and serves as the principal investigator on the UW side of the collaboration. He works closely with Julie A. Shah, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.

Mutlu’s team is building on previous work related to topics such as gaze aversion in humanoid robots, robot gestures and the issue of “speech and repair.” For example, if a human misunderstands a robot’s instructions or carries them out incorrectly, how should the robot correct the human?

At MIT, Shah breaks down the components of human-robot teamwork and tries to determine who should perform various tasks. Mutlu’s work complements Shah’s by focusing on how humans and robots actually interact.

“People can sometimes have difficulty figuring out how best to work with or use a robot, especially if its capabilities are very different from people’s,” says Shah. “Automated planning techniques can help bridge the gap in our capabilities and allow us to work more effectively as a team.”

Over the summer, UW-Madison computer sciences graduate student Allison Sauppé traveled to Steelcase headquarters to learn more about its efforts to incorporate Baxter into the production line. She found that perceptions of Baxter varied according to employees’ roles.

While managers tended to see Baxter as part of the overall system of automation, front-line workers had more complex feelings. “Some workers saw Baxter as a social being or almost a co-worker, and they talked about Baxter as if it were another person,” she says. “They unconsciously attributed human-like characteristics.”