Industrial Revolution Displayed at Hannover Messe 2015

Industrial Revolution Displayed at Hannover Messe 2015

Kuka at Hannover 2015In the rush of a lot of news and a vacation thrown in, I’m still digesting news from Hannover Messe in April. Microsoft had called and asked if I could stop by for an interview, but unfortunately I was not at Hannover.

Below is a Microsoft blog post. The writer posits three industrial ages, and then he surprises us by announcing the arrival of a fourth. Interestingly, it is at Hannover two years ago where Industrie 4.0 sprang forth into our consciousness. Here is Microsoft’s take on the fourth generation of manufacturing along with a few specific examples of what it means in practice.

I think this is a good, though not necessarily complete, look at aspects of Industry 4.0.


From the blog


When we think about what it takes to build a successful business, there were three main eras, which characterized important shifts in the global marketplace. The first was the industrial revolution when people began to mass-produce and distribute goods with tremendous scale and efficiency. Since everyone received information at the same time and speed was not an issue, change wasn’t particularly fast.

What followed was the Information Age where people weren’t just using technology to drive production efficiencies; they were using it to drive information efficiencies. During this time, competitive advantage began to shift to our access to information.

Today, information and data are ubiquitous which has had a tremendous effect on both our digital work and life experiences. The world has formed a giant network where everyone has access to anyone and everything. Some people refer to this as the Connected Age.

However, the ubiquity of data and connected devices, coupled with important advances in machine learning, are powering a new set of capabilities called the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is now at the forefront of a fourth era in business productivity. With IoT, companies worldwide are transforming the way they plant crops, assemble goods and maintain machinery. Now, several Microsoft customers and partners, including Fujitsu, KUKA Robotics, and Miele, are announcing IoT initiatives that will change the way people live and work.

IoT’s influence on those companies and many others is on display this week at the large industry fair Hannover Messe, where the term “Industry 4.0” was first coined. Everywhere we look there are examples of physical assets integrated with processes, systems and people, and exciting possibilities are being fueled by this transformation.

At this event, Microsoft is showing how we’re helping manufacturers innovate, bring products to market more quickly and transform into digital businesses. Aided by unlimited compute power and rich data platforms, the creation of “systems of intelligence” that enable reasoning over vast amounts of data are empowering individuals and organizations with actionable insights.


Blending physical with digital


Fujitsu is bringing together its Eco-Management Dashboard, IoT/M2MP platform, Microsoft cloud services, and Windows tablets in a way that can enable managers, engineers, and scientists to improve product quality, streamline systems, and enhance functionality while reducing costs. For example, at its facility in Aizu Wakamatsu, Japan, Fujitsu is able to grow lettuce that is both delicious and low in potassium so that it can be consumed by dialysis patients and people with chronic kidney disease. They can track all of the plant info from their Windows tablets through the cloud. These solutions will also be able to help other agriculture and manufacturing companies transform their businesses through innovation.

Artificial intelligence is no longer a fantastic vision for the future—it is happening today. KUKA, a manufacturer of industrial robots and automation solutions, is using the Microsoft IoT platform to create one of the world’s first showcases that blends IT with robotic technologies into a smart manufacturing solution with new capabilities.

Intelligent Industrial Work Assistant (LBR iiwa), a sensitive and safe lightweight robot, uses precise movements and sensor technology to perceive its surroundings around a complex task like performing the delicate action of threading a tube into a small hole in the back of a dishwasher. Errors in the supply chain are addressed in real time through Windows tablets, making the automated process faster and easier. Through this demonstration, KUKA is highlighting how its LBR iiwa can collaborate with humans to jointly perform the task as peers working together without being controlled by a human or using a vision system.


Eyeing physical assets through a digital lens


For companies trying to understand how this approach can help, look at the infrastructure you already have. How can these assets become connected and intelligent? What kind of data would help to reduce cost, or increase agility? How can you use insights to grow revenue in existing operations, or offer those insights to customers and create new revenue streams?

The focus here is on transforming existing business models and adding cloud-connected services. In the age of Industry 4.0, manufacturing and resource companies will no longer compete over the products and features they offer, but on new business models they can either pursue themselves or offer to customers.

Rethink Robotics Smart Collaborative Robot

Rethink Robotics Smart Collaborative Robot

Rethink Robotics Sawyer

Rethink Robotics today provided a glimpse into the future of collaborative robotics with the introduction of Sawyer, a single-arm, high-performance robot designed to execute machine tending, circuit board testing and other precise tasks that have historically been impractical to automate with traditional industrial robots. 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 offers the same highly-touted safety, compliance and usability advantages of Baxter – including the iconic “face” screen, embedded sensors and train-by-demonstration user interface – while providing the smaller footprint and high precision performance needed for tasks that require significant agility and flexibility.  In addition, Sawyer runs on the Intera software system, the same extensible platform that powers Baxter, so it works like humans do by dynamically adapting to real-world conditions on the plant floor and integrating seamlessly into existing work cells.  Together, Baxter and Sawyer can address many of the estimated 90 percent of manufacturing tasks that cannot be feasibly automated with traditional solutions today according to the press release.

Weighing 19 kg (42 lbs), Sawyer features a 4kg (8.8 lb) payload, with 7 degrees of freedom and a 1-meter 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 enables an adaptive precision that is unique to the robotics industry and allows Sawyer to work effectively in semi-structured environments.  In addition, Sawyer features an embedded vision system, which includes a camera in its head to perform applications requiring a wide field of view and a Cognex camera with a built-in light source in its wrist for precision vision applications.  Sawyer’s vision system enables the Robot Positioning System for dynamic re-orientation, and over time will support more advanced features that are inherent to the Cognex system, such as barcode scanning and object recognition.

“With Baxter, we introduced the concept of robots and people working together on the plant floor,” said Rethink Robotics president and CEO Scott Eckert.  “With Sawyer, we have taken that relationship to the next level, with a high performance robot that opens the door for many new applications that have never been good candidates for automation.  As we continue to redefine this industry, we also continue to give manufacturers new ways of adding efficiency and flexibility into their operations.”

Jabil, a global electronic product solutions company that is partnering with Rethink Robotics as an early adopter and field tester of Sawyer, recognizes the robot’s immense potential.  “Flexible automation that addresses shrinking product lifecycles and helps companies align with consumer trends is a critical technology initiative for manufacturers,” said John Dulchinos, vice president of digital manufacturing at Jabil.  “Rethink Robotics continues to lead the way in defining how workers and machines can coexist to leverage the strengths of each, and optimize productivity for all.”

Dan Kara, robotics practice director at ABI Research, also sees the value of Sawyer for the robotics industry and its customers.  “With the introduction of Baxter, Rethink fundamentally changed the conversation in the robotics industry and pioneered a new way of thinking about automation.  Today, the collaborative concept has been accepted, the value has been proven, and more companies are looking to standardize globally on these solutions.  Sawyer incorporates advanced technology from the Baxter platform, but is different in other fundamental aspects, making it suitable for wholly new classes of applications.  Rethink’s Sawyer is a very compelling technology that has the potential to once again change the way manufacturers think about their automation infrastructure moving forward,” he concluded.

Sawyer, which will retail for a base price of $29,000, will initially be available in North America, Europe, China and Japan. It is currently being field tested by several large manufacturing companies in those regions.  Sawyer will be released with limited availability in the summer of 2015, with general customer availability targeted for later in the year.

About Rethink Robotics

Rethink Robotics, Inc. helps manufacturers meet the challenges of an agile economy with an integrated workforce, combining trainable, safe and cost-effective robots with skilled labor. Its Baxter robot, driven by Intera, an advanced software platform, gives world-class manufacturers and distributors in automotive, plastics, consumer goods, electronics and more, a workforce multiplier that optimizes labor. With Rethink Robotics, manufacturers increase flexibility, lower costs and can invest in skilled labor—all advantages in fueling continuous innovation and sustainable competitive advantage.

Committed to accelerating robotics innovation in manufacturing and beyond, Rethink Robotics’ Baxter Research Robot gives academic and corporate research environments a humanoid robot platform with integrated sensors and an open software development kit for creating custom applications.

Based in Boston, Massachusetts, the company is funded by GE Ventures, Goldman Sachs, Bezos Expeditions, CRV, Highland Capital Partners, Sigma Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Two Sigma Ventures.

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.”

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