Software, Robots, Friday Updates, Automation and Ethics

Software, Robots, Friday Updates, Automation and Ethics

It’s Friday before Memorial Day and I’m catching up on a number of items I’ve read this week concerning automation and ethics.

  • GPR
  • AI (Eric Schmidt / Elon Musk)
  • Robot Market
  • Automation Tsunami
  • Rockwell Automation OPC UA
  • Schneider Electric Triconex
  • Peaceful Fruit


Marketing people lust after your information. Trust me, I was in the business. If a magazine or website can collect your email address and provide (sell) it to a marketer, fantastic. If they can add name, company, address, and telephone number(s), all the better.

Some companies have treated you (us) like a commodity to be harvested and sold. Now in the wake of the European GDPR regulation, companies have been flooding us with emails telling us that, while in the past they may have done all that to us, in the future they’ll do less of it—maybe. Makes me wonder about all of them.

As for me—I have an email list of people who have signed up for my occasional newsletter. I use them only for that. No one besides me sees it.

Artificial Intelligence

Remember the old Groucho Marx line, “Military intelligence is an oxymoron”? Well, how about adapting the phrase to modern times? “Artificial Intelligence is an oxymoron.”

I wrote a little about that yesterday. Scanning my news items today, I see Eric Schmidt contesting with Elon Musk on the subject—“Elon is just plain wrong.” Yep.

Robot Market

According to Tractica, a market intelligence firm, Consumer Robots, Enterprise Robots, Autonomous Vehicles, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are expanding their share of the $52.7 billion annual robotics market.

A new report finds non-industrial robots represented 70% of the $39.3 billion robotics market globally in 2017, growing from a 64% share in 2016. By the end of 2018, the market intelligence firm expects that non-industrial robots will rise to 76% of the total market, which will have grown to $52.7 billion by that time.

Tractica’s analysis finds that most robotics industry growth is being driven by segments like consumer, enterprise, healthcare, military, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and autonomous vehicles.

The epicenter of robotics continues to shift from the traditional centers of Japan and Europe toward the emerging artificial intelligence (AI) hotbeds of Silicon Valley and China. ”

Tractica’s report, “Robotics Market Forecasts”, covers the global market for robotics, including consumer robots, enterprise robots, industrial robots, healthcare robots, military robots, UAVs, and autonomous vehicles. These categories are further segmented into 23 robot application markets. Market data within the report includes robot shipments and revenue segmented by world region, application market, and enabling technology. The technologies included in the attach rate analysis are machine vision, voice/speech recognition, gesture recognition, and tactile sensors. The forecast period for this report extends from 2017 through 2025. An Executive Summary of the report is available for free download on the firm’’s website.

“Automation Tsunami”

Steve Levine in Axios Future of Work newsletter reports, “There is barely a peep from Washington in response to a widely forecast social and economic tsunami resulting from automation, including the potential for decades of flat wages and joblessness. But cities and regions are starting to act on their own.”

What’s happening: In Indianapolis, about 338,000 people are at high risk of automation taking their jobs, according to a new report. In Phoenix, the number is 650,000. In both cases, that’s 35% of the workforce. In northeastern Ohio, about 40,000 workers are at high risk.

Check it out on his website. I have mixed feelings on the issue. On the one hand automation has replaced humans in dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks. And…we are facing a coming labor shortage if demographic data suggestions hold out and politics inhibits immigration. On the other hand, we do have short term crises for people who can’t find work. That is a very real social and personal problem.

Rockwell OPC UA

I’ve written a couple of times lately about how Rockwell Automation has switched direction and adopted standard technologies OPC UA and TSN. It has just informed me that its FactoryTalk Linx software allows OPC UA communications across industrial IoT technologies from different vendors.

Companies can now take advantage of the OPC UA standard in Rockwell Automation products to achieve interoperability among their industrial IoT devices. Support for the vendor-neutral standard is provided through the FactoryTalk Linx communications software, which allows Rockwell Automation and third-party products to exchange data.

Schneider Electric Tricon update

Schneider Electric has released Tricon CX version 11.3, the most powerful version of its EcoStruxure Triconex safety instrumented system. This version embeds cybersecurity features within its flagship process safety system.

Peaceful Fruits

I am interested in good products, ethically produced, that perform a social good. I’ve invested in a local coffee house that buys coffee from a distributor/roaster who buys directly from the farmer. Not only does the farmer (and his workers) earn a living wage, the coffee is ethically grown, and also tastes great.

A message came my way this week about Peaceful Fruits. This young man joined the Peace Corps and worked every day for two years to make an impact on people’s lives in the Amazon rainforest. Living in the Suriname jungle, he worked jointly with indigenous tribes to build systems to preserve independence and sustainability.

It was here that Evan first tasted the acai berry — which grows naturally in the rainforest — and he decided to take the first step in helping to make advances in the food industry.

As the founder of Peaceful Fruits, an Akron, Ohio-based company specializing in whole fruit snacks, Evan speaks to this generation’s pursuit of nutrient-friendly, label-accurate, and eco-sensitive food. And with childhood obesity skyrocketing, it’s a great time to revisit which snacks our kids are eating on a daily basis. “The snack industry is slowly lurching forward because of increased consumer demand for healthier and more responsible options — and this is an opportunity to teach the next generation of kids that everyday food can be tasty, healthy and sustainable.”

His goal beyond changing the food industry is to educate and empower young people to pursue big goals that have big consequences. “Sure, I’m in the healthy fruit snacks business, but I’m really in the business of promoting wellness, sustainability and a cultural shift in how we think about what we put in our bodies.”

Robots Rock at Automate

Robots Rock at Automate

Automate is the biennial trade show featuring robots, vision, and motion control technology and products. It is sponsored by the Association for Advancing Automation. I wrote about it Wednesday discussing statistics about robots and jobs.

Even though I was deeply involved in robotic technology and did some vision implementations in past lives, this all became sort of boring to me for quite a few years. Probably ever since the delta robot. Recent developments have made robots much more interesting.

Several companies were exhibiting some innovations at this year’s event. Here are a few I saw.

Autonomous Mobile Robots

One area that holds much promise is autonomous mobile robots (AMR). I walked a booth with several little “pets” wandering around freely going from station to station.

This was in the booth of the Danish company, Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR). It launched its newest robot, the MiR200. It is an upgrade to the company’s flagship MiR100, which has already been installed in more than 30 countries by companies such as Airbus, Boeing, Flex, Honeywell, Michelin, Procter & Gamble, Toyota and Walmart.

AMRs are a dramatic improvement over legacy automated guided vehicles (AGVs), which require the expensive and inflexible installation of sensors or magnets into factory floors for guidance. MiR products are designed to give owners the flexibility to easily redeploy the robots to different processes or facility layouts to support changing business needs and agile manufacturing processes.

“Our robots are changing the game for any size business, from small, regional companies to large multinationals,” said MiR CEO Thomas Visti. “With the new interface of the MiR200, it’s even easier for companies to program the robot themselves and adapt its deployment as their business evolves. That’s critical for their competitiveness, and supports extremely fast ROI. The robot typically pays for itself in less than a year, even in very dynamic environments.” 

Gripper Technology

Another recent development that shows great promise is robots working nicely with people. This technology is known as collaborative robots (cobots). I ran into a new company from Denmark (a hotbed of robotic development—I wrote about Universal Robots last September) called On Robot. Its two-finger RG2 grippers—available in both single and dual versions— mount easily on the arms of cobots without any external wires; for robots that have infinite rotation of the last joint, this enables unprecedented flexibility and productivity.

The RG2 grippers can be easily programmed directly from the same interface as the robot, and the gripper can be modified without previous programming experience, making them ideal for collaborative robot users.

“User-friendly robot arms need user-friendly grippers, and until RG2, the ease-of-use and flexibility required just wasn’t available,” said Torben Ekvall, On Robot CEO. “Most traditional grippers work by using compressed air, which takes up a lot of space, is energy-intensive and is far too complicated for many users. On Robot’s RG2 is an electronic solution that is easy to mount, is very flexible and can be modified by an operator on the factory floor without the assistance of an engineer. This ease-of-use will help speed development for an increasing number of manufacturers’ applications.”

Unique features of the RG2 gripper include:

  • Simple and intuitive programming: RG2 lets operators easily choose what they need the gripper to do and the gripper responds with motion as flexible as the cobot itself.
  • Angle mounting: From 0° to 180° in 30° steps, in both the single- and dual-gripper setup, the gripper ensures great flexibility and adaptability for comprehensive tasks.
  • Customizable fingertips: The gripper fingers support the use of customized fingertips, which can be designed by end users to fit production requirements.
  • Assisted center-of-gravity calculation: Users enter the value of the payload and the robot calculates the rest, making programming easier, enhancing overall productivity and improving safety by enabling more accurate robot arm movements.
  • Continuous grip indication: The gripper can discern any lost or deliberately removed object.
  • Automatic Tool Center Point (TCP) calculation: Automatic calculation of how the robot arm moves around the calculated TCP of an object, depending on the position in which the gripper is mounted, for easier programming and use.

Exhibiting along with On Robot was OptoForce. This is a Hungarian company with an ingenious force sensor that can assemble on the robot end of arm with the On Robot grippers. The combination enables many really cool applications.

Dual Arm Cobot

DEONET factory, the Netherlands

Speaking of collaborative robots or cobots, ABB introduced YuMi. “The new era of robotic coworkers is here and an integral part of our Next Level strategy,” said ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer. “YuMi makes collaboration between humans and robots a reality. It is the result of years of research and development, and will change the way humans and robots interact. YuMi is an element of our Internet of Things, Services and People strategy creating an automated future together.”

While YuMi was specifically designed to meet the flexible and agile production needs of the consumer electronics industry, it has equal application in any small parts assembly environment thanks to its dual arms, flexible hands, universal parts feeding system, camera-based part location, lead-through programming, and state-of-the-art precise motion control.

YuMi can operate in very close collaboration with humans thanks to its inherently safe design. It has a lightweight yet rigid magnesium skeleton covered with a floating plastic casing wrapped in soft padding to absorb impacts. YuMi is also compact, with human dimensions and human movements, which makes humans coworkers feel safe and comfortable—a feature that garnered YuMi the prestigious “Red Dot ‘best of the best’ design award.” Check out the YuMi Information Portal for more information.

Standards, Technology Lead Way To Collaborative Robots

Standards, Technology Lead Way To Collaborative Robots

The most exciting thing happening now with industrial robots is the new intimacy of human and machine–collaborative robots.

Since I had other plans and could not attend the Rockwell Automation track at the EHS Conference coming up in Pittsburgh, Rockwell brought a piece of the safety symposium to me. George Schuster, a member of the global safety team at Rockwell and a robotics safety expert, discussed the current state of the art with me.

Schuster told me that Rockwell Automation is working with Fanuc Robots to change the way people and machinery interact.

There is much interest in the work in the user community to create manufacturing processes that leverage the strengths of machines (stability, reliability, strength) and the intelligence and adaptability of humans.

“In the past we engineered to keep them separate or at least arbitrate the shared space. Now we’ve found good benefits to engineer ways for people and machines to work together,” said Schuster.

Three things are enabling this approach. First, there are the standards. ISO 10218 and ANSI/RIA 15.06-2012 give guidance for designers. They also make it clear that thorough risk assessments must be carried out when designing these processes. Next, Rockwell is blending its safety technology with robotics. Then design approaches are looking holistically at what is possible with human and machine working together. Together, this is actually more of an application space rather than just technology.

Increasingly working on removing barriers between robotics and controllers, technology includes connectivity and safety–EtherNet/IP Safe; GuardLogix system; Add-on profiles in software-pre-engineered common data structure; part of the Connected Enterprise, includes connection of devices plus communication to upper levels to collect and analyze information–all working together.

There are four key current applications: ability to stop robot without killing power to allow operator to interact for instance load/unload, can quickly enter/leave area; hand guided operation, person can move/guide robot kind of like ergonomic load assist; speed and separation monitor, sensor system detects presence and position of personnel, modulates robot, can stop if person gets too close, coordinates robot speed and approaching person; power force limiting-this one is a little tricky, it’s hard to know where the robot will come in contact and what force is acceptable to the human, difference between soft flesh and hard place, etc.

This is all cool. It is ushering in a new era of manufacturing.

Industrial Software Now More Important Than Hardware?



[Industrial] “Software’s Where It’s At.” The blog title was intriguing. It was implied that  industrial software was increasingly more important than hardware. Then I began to look at my accumulating queue of news. There is a bunch. Here is a sampling. It appears that more innovation time and investment is going into software than hardware. What do you think? Software is now where it’s at?


Cloud and Analytics

GE and Microsoft announced a partnership that will make GE’s Predix platform for the Industrial Internet available on the Microsoft Azure cloud for industrial businesses. The move marks the first step in a broad strategic collaboration between the two companies. This continues a trend I’ve noticed recently of a newly resurgent Microsoft adding clients to Azure cloud.

“Connecting industrial machines to the internet through the cloud is a huge step toward simplifying business processes and reimagining how work gets done,” said Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE. “GE is helping its customers extract value from the vast quantities of data coming out of those machines and is building an ecosystem of industry-leading partners like Microsoft that will allow the Industrial Internet to thrive on a global scale.”

Bringing Predix to Azure, according to GE, means industrial customers will now have access to additional capabilities such as natural language technology, artificial intelligence, advanced data visualization and enterprise application integration.

Microsoft predicts Azure will support the growth of the entire industrial IoT ecosystem by offering Predix customers access to “the largest cloud footprint available today”, along with data sovereignty, hybrid capabilities, and advanced developer and data services. In addition, GE and Microsoft plan to integrate Predix with Azure IoT Suite and Cortana Intelligence Suite along with Microsoft business applications, such as Office 365, Dynamics 365 and Power BI, in order to connect industrial data with business processes and analytics.

“Every industry and every company around the world is being transformed by digital technology,” said Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft. “Working with companies like GE, we can reach a new set of customers to help them accelerate their transformation across every line of business — from the factory floor to smart buildings.”

Software’s Where It’s At

This is the blog that brought my thinking to a focus. ARC analyst Mark Sen Gupta wrote about a recent CEO appointment. Honeywell recently announced that Dave Cote is retiring after 14 years at the helm and will be succeeded by Darius Adamczyk.

In the announcement Mr. Cote states, “Scanning & Mobility and Honeywell Process Solutions are software-based businesses with advanced offerings that blend physical and digital capabilities, and they serve as benchmarks for where the rest of Honeywell is heading. Darius’ deep expertise in software will open new growth paths for all of our businesses, which are blending Honeywell’s advanced software programming capabilities with leading-edge physical products and unparalleled domain expertise in a wide variety of industries.”  This is a very interesting statement because it recognizes a crucial shift in automation.

Says Sen Gupta, “When we think of automation we normally think of hardware: DCS, PLC, sensors.  However, most of the innovation in the industry is happening in software. This aspect of automation innovation has not escaped the attention of ExxonMobil and has led to culmination of it’s open automation initiative.  IIoT, cloud, analytics, edge computing have far more to do with what is provided from a software aspect than from a hardware aspect.  This is not to say that hardware has no value.  In fact if you were to check the balance sheets, you would find that the large automation companies earn more revenue on what we consider hardware, and something has to host the software.”

Digital Twin

Fellow ARC analyst, Dick Slansky recently wrote on how manufacturing and production systems will undergo significant changes. He foresees the eventual realization of the “lights-out” factory with adoption of all the new digital technologies.

“This is a case of leading PLM solutions providers offering advanced analytics solutions applied to the manufacturing processes and to operational optimization. The common objective is to use predictive and prescriptive analytics to improve the overall performance of production operations.”

He continues, “One of the most sought after but elusive goals of product design engineering is to validate that you have achieved all the design criteria in the as-built product. That is, closing the loop between the as-built to the as-designed, and validating that the physical product will meet all design criteria before the product is manufactured. This is where the concept of the digital twin in now being applied to product design criteria, and the goal of ‘closed-loop PLM’.”

“As IIoT, the digital thread and digital twin evolve within the overall ecosystems of product and process, the methodologies, including analytics, for both product development and production processes will  converge. The intent and goal of the digital enterprise is to maintain a continuous and real-time digital thread that connects the lifecycle from concept through design, test, and build, to supply chain and products in field.”

ABB Robotics

There has been little radical innovation within industrial robots for some time. Improvements, yes; Innovation, not so much.

But ABB has been working on the software side. It just announced SafeMove2, the latest generation of its safety certified robot monitoring software.

SafeMove2 includes a host of cutting-edge safety functions, including safe speed limits, safe standstill monitoring, safe axis ranges and position and orientation supervision.  The new generation functionality encourages the development of innovative robot applications by integrating safety features directly into the robot controller.

“To be efficient, robots must be able to move at speeds suited to the given application. At high speeds this can present a potential hazard for people working in the immediate vicinity. Historically, fences or cages have been used to separate man from machine in an effort to keep them out of harm’s way,” says Dr. Hui Zhang, Head of Product Management, ABB Robotics. “SafeMove2 allows robots and operators to work more closely together by restricting robot motion to precisely what is needed for a specific application.”

SafeMove2 allows for the creation of more efficient and flexible production scenarios, and provides tools that speed the commissioning workflow for faster setup and validation. It also integrates safety fieldbus connectivity into ABB’s IRC5 robot controller family as well as the IRC5 Single, Compact and Paint controllers.

Robots and Humans Collaborating for Manufacturing Success

Robots and Humans Collaborating for Manufacturing Success

Rethink Robotics SawyerMy grandson was asking about why can’t we build a better light bulb and design better batteries. He’s eight. If he keeps asking the big questions, he’ll have a good future.

I told him that there would always be problems to solve, that’s why we would need engineers and scientists. He asked, what kind of questions. I told him about the need to develop robots that could work with people. This technology will become increasingly useful to help an aging population cope with physical limitations. It will also help production when we (shortly) face a declining workforce.

I like to point to the work of Rethink Robotics. It recently announced that its Sawyer robot, the company’s second smart, collaborative robot designed for a wide range of factory environments, is available for purchase and is being deployed by manufacturers across the globe. Announced in March, Sawyer is a single-arm, high-performance robot created to handle machine tending, circuit board testing and other precise tasks that have been difficult to automate with existing robots.

Weighing only 19 kilograms (42 pounds), Sawyer features a 4kg (8.8 lbs.) payload, with seven degrees of freedom and a 1260mm reach that can maneuver into the tight spaces and varied alignments of work cells designed for humans. Its high resolution force sensing, embedded at each joint, enables Rethink Robotics’ compliant motion control, which allows the robot to “feel” its way into fixtures or machines, even when parts or positions vary. This characteristic enables a repeatability that is unique to the robotics industry, and allows Sawyer to work effectively in semi-structured environments on tasks requiring 0.1mm of tolerance.

Sawyer offers a unique combination of features that distinguish it from other conventional and collaborative robots, including compliant motion control, embedded vision with a built-in Cognex camera and Rethink’s Robot Positioning System, a component of the proprietary and industry-leading Intera software platform. Powering both Sawyer and Rethink’s first collaborative robot, Baxter, the Intera system makes deploying the robots far easier than typical industrial robots. While traditional robots typically take an average of 200 hours to program and deploy, Sawyer can be deployed in under two hours and can easily be trained by typical factory technicians – not roboticists.

Sawyer is purpose-designed for enterprise-level deployments, with a useful life of 35,000 hours of operation. The robot is IP54-rated, making it ideal for harsh factory environments. Since its introduction, Sawyer has been field tested extensively at leading manufacturers’ sites around the world, and is currently being deployed on production lines in many of those facilities.

The process improves the efficiency of the product line while allowing GE’s employees to handle the more dexterous and cognitive work needed to complete the task.

General Electric has been testing Sawyer over the past month and will deploy their first robot in a GE Lighting plant in Hendersonville, North Carolina. A prime example of true human-robot collaboration, Sawyer will be on a production line positioning parts into a light fixture as a GE employee completes the assembly. The process improves the efficiency of the product line while allowing GE’s employees to handle the more dexterous and cognitive work needed to complete the task.

“The ability to deploy a smart, collaborative robot like Sawyer provides a significant flexibility advantage to our production team, while still meeting our world class quality, precision and speed standards,” said Kelley Brooks, global advanced manufacturing & engineering leader at GE Lighting. “Utilizing this technology is an integral part of our Brilliant Factory initiative to connect all parts of the supply chain from product design, to engineering, to the factory floor and beyond in order to deliver customized LED solutions for our customers.”

Sawyer is also set to be deployed in Steelcase Inc.’s (NYSE: SCS) Grand Rapids factory, where it will work in tandem with the company’s welding machine. Sawyer will work to pick and place parts in pairs of two, enabling a completely autonomous welding process. The robot’s small footprint, long reach and higher payload capacity make it ideal for the Steelcase team. In addition to handling changes in parts and lines seamlessly, Sawyer’s IP54 rating allows the robot to work in manufacturing environments with liquids and particle hazards present.

“Having already deployed several Baxter robots successfully, we’ve seen the value that collaborative robots bring to the factory floor,” said Edward Vander Bilt, leader of innovation at Steelcase. “These robots are the game-changers of modern manufacturing, and Rethink Robotics is leading the evolving relationship between humans and machines that allow each to do what they do best.”

Sawyer is a significant addition to the company’s smart, collaborative robot family, which also includes the groundbreaking Baxter robot that defined the category of safe, interactive, affordable automation. Sawyer is available for purchase in manufacturing environments throughout North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific.

“After announcing Sawyer in March, the worldwide demand we have seen for the robot has been overwhelming,” said Rethink Robotics President and Chief Executive Officer Scott Eckert. “Manufacturers around the globe understand that Sawyer opens the door for a wealth of new applications and opportunities to improve their business, and they are eager to get it onto their production floors.”

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