I, robot, am your collaborator

June 1, 2014 1:50 pm

I, robot, am your collaborator

By Tanya Powley and Chris Bryant

Now BMW is bringing robots out from behind their cages to work side-by-side with workers on the assembly line. Lightweight “collaborative” robots manufactured by Denmark’s Universal Robots help to fit doors with sound and moisture insulation, a task that previously required workers to use a manual roller that risked straining older workers’ wrists.

“Being able to reliably put a robot outside the “safety cage” and have it work with a human is a massive change for industry, and means you can have a strong precise robot help a weak dexterous human,” says Rich Walker of Shadow Robots, a UK robotics research company.

Human-machine collaboration is just one of several big trends in robotics that are opening up new markets and applications beyond automotive and semiconductor manufacturing, where robots have been a mainstay for decades.

Advances in sensors, hydraulics, mobility, artificial intelligence, machine vision and big data are making robots more sensitive, flexible, precise and autonomous.

This means robots can be employed beyond manufacturing to healthcare, the laboratory, logistics, agriculture and even the film industry.

South Korean robots lead the world

The hulking white robot pirouettes with startling grace, as it delicately transfers a massive pane of ultra-thin glass to the next stage of its treatment process. In a typical month, 150,000 sheets of glass pass through this vast plant at LG Display’s factory in Paju, close to the North Korean border, with only a few humans in attendance, writes Simon Mundy.

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These service robots are expected to be the big growth area for robotics going forward. The International Federation of Robotics, an industry body based in Germany, estimates that around 95,000 service robots for professional use – such as defence and agricultural applications – could be sold between 2013 and 2016.

The automotive industry, which pioneered robotics in the 1960s, continues to be the main driver of automation globally. According to IFR, the automotive industry represented around 70,000 of the overall 179,000 robot sales in 2013, a record year of sales. The electronics industry is the next biggest robot user with over 35,000 robot sales. The food industry bought just over 6,200 last year.

Robots are falling in cost and becoming more intuitive to use, meaning small and medium sized businesses can think about using them in production and in the supply chain.

“Of course a robot is not able to fully imitate the dexterity, sensory or cognitive capabilities of a human. But we try to make a robot more flexible. Today, grippers and tools can be quickly changed and the increasing use of sensors allow robots to adapt to work pieces’ tolerances or changes in their operating environment,” says Martin Haegele of Fraunhofer IPA, the German research institute.

Given the relatively low robot density [in China] . . . the further growth potential is enormous

– Hans-Dieter Baumtrog, VDMA

A flexible, lightweight robot arm from Universal Robots, a Danish company that is one of the leaders in collaborative robots, costs between €20,000 to €30,000, compared with a six figure sum for an industrial robot.

Factory in a Day, a four-year EU-funded initiative, aims to encourage more SMEs to use advanced robot technology and boost their productivity by developing a system that can be made operational in 24 hours, is leasable and cheap.

Last year, China became the world’s biggest industrial robot market, in terms of the number of robots bought, overtaking Japan for the first time, according to IFR figures.

“Given the relatively low robot density [in China] . . . the further growth potential is enormous,” says Hans-Dieter Baumtrog, head of robotics and automation at the VDMA German machinery association.

Other Asian markets, including Taiwan, India and Indonesia, also grew strongly. However, sales remain small in comparison to Japan, South Korea, US and Germany, which together represent half of global sales. India purchased only 1,917 robots in 2013.

Mini plant armed with future proof robots

Cowley used to be a byword for the inefficiency of the UK motor industry, a factory plagued by creaking infrastructure and stuttering output. Today, reborn as BMW Group’s Plant Oxford, it stands for the most cutting edge carmaking, writes Henry Foy.

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Companies and governments are pouring millions into research and development to move robot technology into new areas of manufacturing and services. The European Commission has committed almost €1bn of funding for robotics.

Google has been on a robotics buying spree, purchasing eight start-up companies last year, including Boston Dynamics, a military robot manufacturer and Deepmind, a British artificial intelligence company.

But Google has catching up to do it if wants to take on the giants of industrial robots – Yaskawa and Fanuc of Japan, Switzerland’s ABB and Kuka of Germany – which together control a majority of the global market

Many US and European manufacturers are using the productivity offered by robots to reshore manufacturing once outsourced to low-cost Asia.

“Over the next 10 to 15 years every manufacturer in the world will end up using collaborative robots,” says Jim Lawton, chief marketing officer at Rethink Robotics, the US-based company that makes the co-bot known as Baxter.

This is the first part of a series on robots in the workplace that will run over the next two weeks.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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