Schunk annually puts on a service robotics program at their factory auditorium in Lauffin, Germany, a small town 50 miles north of Stuttgart. This was the fourth or fifth one I’ve attended and the conference has migrated to a slightly bigger auditorium containing seating and exhibitor space with adjoining registration, cloakroom, restaurant, and snack areas.
Each time I went I came away with 100+ new or refreshed contacts where I had face-to-face time with each of them. I met Henrik Christensen there many years ago. Also Henrik Schunk.
Every time I came away with general insights into the industry. Here are some subjects that came up at this year’s event:
- This time, because of the emphasis on lower-cost sensors, data, robotic process automation (RPA), and connected devices (IoT) getting integrated into the manufacturing process, I’m rethinking my position on RPA in and for the robotics industry. I think a Venn diagram like the one on the right synthesizes where RPA fits into robotics… just in that little area of overlap. An example of how RPA could fit into a manufacturing stream is providing bin-picking instructions to the robot through the cloud in the form of object localization and task/path planning motion data. One could make a similar Venn diagram with artificial intelligence where the overlap covers that portion of AI and machine learning involved with robotics.
- Kuka’s CTO (Bernd Liepert) described how IT is permeating and transforming the robotics industry and informing Kuka’s future path toward service robots in general and in partnership with Midea (the 94% owner of Kuka). He also said that 80% of Kuka’s collaborative robot sales (LBR iiwa’s) are sold to the medical sector.
- Tom Bauerhansl, a professor at the Fraunhofer Institute, in a think-piece presentation typical of Expert Days, described the new Arena2036, a 30 million Euro facility supported by all the big European robot players, to help incubate and transform the blind, caged world of robotics into the digital age. He went on to describe 10 guidelines to help expedite the change.
- Merge production and logistics system into one value-adding system. Production and logistics systems act as integrated entity for reaching the enterprise goals.
- Dissolve line and cycle-time depending on product variety and workflow complexity. Granularity of structures and processes is adapted to the complexity of the product programs and frame conditions.
- Setup processes and structures mobile and scalable. Value-adding structures can be redesigned dynamically and economically when needed.
- Design intelligent systems. Self-regulated subsystems contribute with their self-healing abilities to a robust overall system.
- Make support processes value-adding. All support process (i.e. logistics) are either transformed into adding-value support processes or eliminated.
- Replace material flow with information flow. Information is used effectively to reduce waste and stock and to support a downstream customization.
- Shift process complexity to where it can be handled most efficiently. The value-adding system boundaries are flexible, integrating customers and suppliers as value-add partners in the value-adding system.
- Represent system elements and processes continuously in a digital shadow. Accurate prediction and evaluation of upcoming events is made possible.
- Optimize production, based on data analytics. In complex systems correlation is more important than causality.
- Focus the human role on design and optimization. Humans use their skills to enhance value-adding and thus optimize the overall system.
Some of the speakers were people I otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet. All were good presenters.
- Irma Lindt heads the DHL Innovation Center. DHL provides contract supply chain and warehouse services all over the world. Who knew? To service those warehouses they have an innovation center which tested robots from Locus, Effidence, Fetch, InVia, Polarus, Sealed Air and self-driving street scooters. After testing they endorse (or not) products for their contract warehouses which are then free to use them if they wish. Fetch and Effidence are endorsees and both are reaping the benefits. DHL says that 80% of warehouses today are manually operated and that they anticipate $31.3 billion growth of logistics robots to 2020 with a CAGR of 32%.
- Christopher Parlitz described Bosch’s newly formed incubator for generating new markets for Bosch that will produce $100+ million of annual revenue per venture. Part of Bosch’s emphasis on new business is because Bosch has 80,000 workers (25% of their workforce) involved with the combustion engine all of whom will be affected as diesel and gas engines get replaced by electric or other non-combustion alternatives.
- Brian Carlisle, previously CEO of Adept and now CEO and founder of Precise Automation, explained the science of risk assessment and how they are necessary for collaborative robotics to safely enable humans and robots to work together. This is a convoluted and boring subject but Brian cut through and made it a very interesting half hour.
- Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, described the process of finding pain points and then having an index to measure end-user effort — from easy to hard (from 1 to 5). It was through this process that Fetch redirected their primary focus to mobility rather than grasping consequently Fetch now has 90 grasping robots all in testing at client sites while they have “several hundred” mobile robots at work in warehouses around the world.
- Claus Risager of Blue Ocean Robotics, Martin Haegele from the Fraunhofer Institute and Schunk’s Kai-Uwe Vayhinger were the three who developed the theme: Smart Future with Cobots, and the focus to select speakers who could describe the technical challenges and possible solutions as our factories, equipment, robots and workers get smarter and work together.
- Claus described Blue Ocean Robotics’ approach to problem-solving: partnering with companies in need of solutions and then co-creating and co-commercializing robotic solutions. Partnerships underway include WallMo, a panel-mounting co-bot; Pyro Drone for drone racing enthusiasts; Scape Technologies, producing vision-guided robots to locate and pick a range of individual parts from bins; Third Element Aviation, integrating drones into logistics, inspection and security workflows; and Multi-Tower Robot which helps hospital, rehab and care facilities lift and move patients.
The consensus opinion from the speakers and side conversations was that the robotics industry was moving quickly toward data, machine learning and connecting and processing all the data. Melonee Wise said that she expected her company to be a data company by 2020.
Henrik Schunk, Schunk’s CEO, in his summary remarks, confirmed what other speakers had alluded to: that the medical logistics sectors of the robotics industry were maturing markets experiencing rapid growth, and that the auto and self-driving industries were in for big changes and shakeouts. Also that data, machine learning and prescriptive analytics were up and coming. He cited this quote: “Software is eating hardware and data is eating software.”
Schunk is a large family-owned business that manufactures very high-quality clamps and grippers. They have more than 2,800 employees in 9 plants and 33 directly owned subsidiaries and distribution partners in more than 50 countries throughout the world. They exhibit at every trade show and conference where gripping, clamping and robotics are involved. They are nice people and treated conference attendees as if they too were family members.
During Expert Days I learned that two European conferences were canceled: RoboBusiness Europe and Innorobo. Both failed for financial reasons but the real reasons differ and are interesting to investigate. One way to analyze what happened is to compare their events to what I find so interesting and likable about Expert Days.
Expert Days is 48 hours of hands-on, meet and greet, high-level robotics with important people in the field (mostly European). Only a small number of hotels so people see each other at breakfast. Lunches are together at the conference with communal sit-down spaces. And dinner is big, noisy and fun. Tables of 8 or 10 so people can meet, drink and talk. Schunk marketing people were there making all transitions and logistics smooth and easy.
At the conference, all 20 speakers were given 30 minutes to talk and 10 minutes for questions. No overlapping tracks. Thus all attendees saw, heard and participated in all talks and all events. Exhibitors had their own space (not really booths; more of an area) surrounding the auditorium so that breaks and lunches are right there with the exhibitors all the time.
There’s a flavor of industry altruism rather than product promotion at Expert Days. Sort of “this is how it fits and how it works to solve specific problems” told in engineer language rather than generic marketing speak. To me, that spirit of industry altruism (a particularly European tendency), plus the smallness of the overall group, made Expert Days particularly informative and helpful.