Collaborating on New Robotic Projects

May 16, 2016
No matter where robotics might take you next, a collaborative R&D approach can help realize what needs to be accomplished.

Have you noticed how ubiquitous robots are becoming? We’re used to seeing them in manufacturing environments welding car frames, assembling circuit boards or palletizing boxes, yet these days you can even find them pouring drinks on a cruise ship, moving LED screens at a concert or solving a Rubik’s cube.

We recently worked with two different startup companies with a vision for new product niches. Both lacked the manufacturing process knowledge to bring their ideas to life, and were stymied because there were no established norms to follow or OEMs with standard solutions. Their search led them to us because of our broad industry experience in constructing automation solutions, but more specifically because of our reputation for taking on challenging robotic automation projects. And trust me, neither of these are industries an automation solution provider would traditionally target.

The purpose of this blog is not how we appealed to a non-traditional industry, but rather how we approached these projects and applied our technology and industrial manufacturing knowledge to develop a solution that met their unique needs.

Collaboration is a key part of our approach to any automation project, whether robotic in nature or not. Projects like this flow from an idea of what needs to be accomplished, rather than from specifications, so it seems natural for us to take an R&D approach. The research is not so much in the technology, but rather in understanding the customer’s needs and establishing clear goals for the system. Initially, we consult directly with all the stakeholders in the system—from the people who will be interacting with the system to the team reviewing the financial statements.

Through this process, we garner a comprehensive view of how the robot can best solve the problem. This includes looking at ease of use, making the process more efficient, satisfying the business drivers, and identifying any pitfalls that could exist in deploying automation in a given environment. All these aspects are considered as we put together our initial designs.

In both cases, the system requirements drew on a broad range of our expertise, from robotics, motion control, graphical human-machine interfaces (HMIs), safety, machine design and process flow to subtler things like graphics design and machine aesthetics. Interestingly enough, one of the systems was destined for a consumer-based market, which really stretched the bounds of the look and feel of the system, including an HMI that turns programming a robot in 3D space into something a prehistoric man could do—with limitations, of course, since prehistoric folks likely did not have a firm grasp on things like tool offsets and singularity issues.

It is important that collaboration continues as the project transitions into the development phase. With 3D modeling tools, the team can see the initial thoughts as they become reality. This quickly transitions into a working model, where ideas are put into motion and proven out one way or another. As we go through the process, we continually sharpen the focus on a functioning machine. The result is a world-class automation system, tailored 100 percent to the customer’s needs, allowing them to capitalize on their vision as quickly as possible.

Robots are expanding their presence in many areas of life, and in the process they allow people to achieve what previously had been unthinkable—whether doing repetitive tedious tasks, operating in unsafe conditions or pouring your favorite drink on a cruise ship. As a robot integrator, we’re excited about the future and partnering with companies that have a vision for new products that will take us into new territory while also creating revolutionary solutions. With an R&D approach, customer needs are clearly identified, so delivered systems exceed expectations. Where will a robot take you next?

Michael Gurney is CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.