According to surveys, 93% of manufacturing companies, especially those at the small end, say "robotics is not for them." The problem appears to be particularly acute in the UK, where for many years industry commentators have lamented the state of the robotics market. According to a 2014 report by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), sales of industrial robots in the UK have actually decreased by 16% in 2013 to just 2486 units. To put that into context, Germany purchased over seven times as many and China over 14 times as many.
Graham Mackrell, managing director of Harmonic Drive, believes that one of the biggest obstacles to growth in the UK has traditionally been a reluctance by OEMs to invest in the infrastructure, maintenance, training and expertise required to operate an automated production plant. Another idea sometimes put forward is that the bosses of engineering SMEs in the UK are less likely to be graduate-trained engineers and, hence, find new technology more intimidating.
One solution: collaborative robots. The hottest topic in robotics today, these machines can work safely alongside humans in an uncaged environment. They are opening up new opportunities for industry, OEMs, integrators, start-ups, venture capitalists, users, and potential users alike. Using a mixture of embedded proximity and optical sensors, high precision gears and smart software, these lightweight, often dual-arm robots, work alongside humans and can be trained using lead-through programming where less coding knowledge is needed.
That doesn’t mean their workspaces are devoid of safety peripherals, but gone are the elaborate safety guarding systems of their heavyweight cousins. The fences are coming down. Robots are being seen in a whole new light.
Baxter, the dual-arm humanoid robot from Rethink Robotics, has garnered near-celebrity status in the press since his introduction in September 2012. He has two 7-axis arms connected to a torso and sports an LCD display for a “face” that reacts to human interaction. He weighs in at 75 kg and has a maximum load capacity of 2.3 kg per arm.
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Yaskawa Motoman’s Dexter Boit dual-arm robot has 15 axes, including two 7-axis arms connected to a torso that rotates at the waist. This collaborative robot has been in the manufacturing space for more than two years and is available in different payloads from 5 kg up to 20 kg per arm. Dexter Bot even has his own LinkedIn page.
Unlike Baxter which starts at only $22,000, Yaskawa’s dual-arm robot maintains the speed and precision of traditional robots and its six-figure price tag reflects this performance expectation. Expensive robots also need to be protected against theft and insured.
KUKA’s lightweight robot, the LBR iiwa (for intelligent industrial work assistant) was introduced at Hannover Messe 2013 in Germany. It was developed under a technology transfer agreement with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and was originally designed for use in outer space. The current model is a 7-axis arm, weighing 23kg, with a “light touch” for sophisticated assembly tasks.
“The LBR iiwa is particularly adept at force-guided assembly tasks, such as gear meshing, peg in hole insertion, and snap fitting,” says Michael Gerstenberger, Senior Engineer for KUKA Robotics in Shelby Township, Michigan.
Automata is a technology company, founded in London England exactly a year ago January 2015 by Mostafa El Sayed and Suryansh Chandra who want to "democratize" robotics for the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) and consumer markets. They believe robotic automation in small businesses and individual users can provide a huge amount of creativity, in addition to enhancing productivity. Over the coming years, these will change the way we live and work. But first, these robots need to become a whole lot easier to use, safer to work beside, and substantially more affordable.
The company's first product, called Eva, is a lightweight, plug-and-play robotic arm, made of 3D printed parts. Its software is so simple it can be run off a mobile app, using a tech-by-example approach. Based on user feedback and in-house testing, Automata has been making changes: Eva-9 (the ninth prototype) is now awake and ready to go through long hours of repeatability, precision and payload testing.
Eva-9 is now three times as strong and four times as accurate as its predecessor, Eva-8. She should be able to lift 650 to 900g (based on outreach), and be repeatable down to 0.25mm. In the process, Eva-9 has put on some weight, and weighs in at 2.2kg. To own Eva will cost around $2500 to $3500.
But alternative business models are being proposed concurrently which are more like owning a mobile phone. You pay a monthly fee and get all hardware and software updates and replacements as part of it - this simple accounting change moves robots from the CapEx column to the OpEx column. Compare the quoted costs with those of conventional robotics - around $20k in hardware, $5k in software and $20k in integration, albeit these providing much larger payloads and greater precision.
The technology is not easy to scale up, because cost rises exponentially with size, but despite this she brings robotics within the reach of many applications where "conventional" robotics is prohibited on cost grounds.
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