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Driving for Growth at the RIA

Trevor Jones, a Canadian-based executive for Thermo Electron Corp., was elected last January as President of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), the North American robot industry trade organization. Jones spoke recently with Automation World Managing Editor Wes Iversen about his goals for his two-year term, and the prospects for growth in the robotics and automation markets.

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Automation World:What are your top priorities for your RIA presidency?

Jones: The top priority is membership outreach. The RIA consists of around 250 member companies now, and we want to make that membership a larger number. Relatively speaking, we don’t have a lot of system integrators in the membership. So we want to create programs that specifically provide benefits that are attractive to integrators and give them even more reasons to join the association. One thing we are doing in that area is offering a new market incubator program. Most integrators are rather small companies, and many don’t have a marketing department. They can’t afford to look too far into the future. They’re working more in the present—in terms of what pays their bills today. So the RIA created this market incubator program that is designed to allow these members to get together and find a common focus for what might be a driving new market for them in the future. The RIA then has committed to fund a range of activities that will help to uncover what that market potential really is.

AW: How does the incubator program work?

Jones: It was created out of the RIA New Markets committee, which was a committee that I chaired for about two and a half years. Under the incubator program, interested parties can receive RIA funding and support for formalized analysis of potential new markets for robotics. The program was launched in January. Every year, there will be two windows, which run from January to March, and then from July to September. Members will make their submissions within those two three-month windows. Then, during the month after each of those windows, the New Markets committee will screen the ideas against a formal process and will make recommendations to the RIA board for final approval and funding. The Board will review the submissions and allocate funds for approved projects in June and November of each year.

AW: What are the requirements for funding?

Jones: Really, the only general requirement for a successful submission is that it has to be seen as being of intrinsic value to the membership, because once a project is funded and initiated, the information coming from that project will be shared amongst all the members.

This program was launched to promote collaboration within the membership, and through that, to attract new members. The vision is that new members would see an opportunity in collaborating with established robot companies, with all of that experience and technology. And oh, by the way, if you couldn’t afford to do a little bit of market research on your own, here’s a great program that you can cash in on. So it’s a good message, and I think, rather unique. I don’t think that too many other associations that are doing anything like this.

AW: The North American robot industry had a record year in 2005? What were the drivers for that, and where do you see things headed in 2006?

Jones: The automotive sector accounted for the lion’s share of the growth. And most of the member companies also reported that general industry sales—in other words, non-automotive—also showed strength. So I would say that the tremendous numbers for last year were a combination of the best of both worlds. The industry had a strong backlog coming into the year, and had strong shipments to the automotives. But the strength in the other, non-automotive sectors was there as well.

AW: There’s nothing new about the automotive sector being the strongest. That’s always been the biggest share of North American robotics sales.

Jones: Unquestionably, the association is automotive-oriented. And some of the Association’s biggest member companies provide thousands of robot units to the automotive sector.

AW: Is one of the drivers for the market incubator program the fact that you want to reduce what might be considered to be overdependence by the industry on the automotive sector?

Jones:The short answer is yes. We absolutely want to reduce our dependence upon the automotive industry, because we think that’s the best for everybody. But we don’t want to do that at the expense of saying that automotive is not important to us. The RIA wants to attract new members from new markets that have a different perspective.

AW: Which markets show most potential near term for providing additional growth for the industry?

Jones: There are different ways of looking at the market numbers. Some people characterize markets along commercial lines—for instance automotive, or biomedical, or packaging and palletizing, and such. Another way to look at markets is to distinguish between large user companies and small user companies. We want to see more adoption of automation into smaller and smaller businesses.

For me and my experience, I see it more in the latter way when identifying the primary growth markets for robotics. One might ask if the primary growth is expected from biomedical applications or from pharmaceutical drug discovery, as an example. I think the answer is that there’s growth to be had in those and other areas. It’s very clear that if North America is to remain strong in terms of manufacturing things, or building things, or providing regulated high quality service, like a biomedical robot would have to do, then the use of robotics and automation has to grow in many separate areas.

AW: Are there any technologies that are showing potential to enable more flexibility, more capability and more growth for robotics?

Jones: I think that probably the most common one is vision. And the alliance that’s been forged between the robotics association, the RIA, and the vision association, the Automated Imaging Association, is long-standing.

AW: And yet, when you look at the numbers, you see it’s really a very small percentage of robots that have any vision guidance at all today. One study I saw showed that less than 7 percent of robots sold in 2004 were equipped with vision. So there’s a lot of room for growth.

Jones: You’re exactly right. The penetration of new technologies into what I would call the mainstream is improving, but it’s coming from a relatively weak number. I think there are various reasons for that. Vision used to be very expensive. For example, the ability to use vision to direct a robot how to pick up an object was a nice technical capability, but it was a $40,000 solution to a $5,000 problem.

Today, with the advancement of vision algorithms and the constant decline of computer prices, you now have vision solutions that are rivaling what I would call traditional electromechanical solutions. So cost as a reason for not using sensory feedback is slipping away, especially for vision. With other types of advanced sensory technologies, like force and tactile feedback, I think that it’s still primarily an economic justification problem.

AW:What do you think then is holding back wider use of vision-guided robotics?

Jones: It’s probably got more to do with the fact that these tools are still somewhat general, and they aren’t necessarily bound together by application-specific software sets so that that a typical user would be able to go out and buy something that’s ready to go, out of the box. There’s still an integration aspect to it all. That integration adds cost.

AW: Do you see the industry moving more toward application-specific solutions?

Jones: It has been moving in that direction for a long time. In traditional applications such as welding, for instance, just look at all of the total products that are offered. You have robots integrated with wire feed, with all different types of welding technologies. Even the robot controllers have welding-specific motion patterns built into them, for instance.

So for established processes, I do expect to see the proliferation of application-specific software. For instance, in my company’s application space, we sell automation into pharmaceutical and drug discovery laboratories. Not only do we sell our own robots, but we also sell a piece of software that sits on top that translates automation into the process of drug discovery, so that someone who understands drug discovery can run an automation system, rather than needing a robotics expert to run the automation. I think you’re going to see more of that kind of thing.

So, I believe that the true value of automation is where the automation is presented in certain ways so that experts in the application can converse with the automation and get it to do what they want.

AW:Speaking of technology, what do you think of some of the recent work by companies such as Toyota and Honda, which have launched initiatives to develop humanoid-type robots?

Jones: That’s really interesting. I think that Japan certainly has taken this on in a way that no other country really has. I tend to think of it more as a country directive or strategy, rather than individual company directives. Toyota, Honda and others must have invested billions of dollars in Japan on these types of advanced concepts. And I think the technologies are absolutely amazing to watch.

AW: How might these technologies impact North American industrial robotics?

Jones: Usually, the way you see technology adoption happen is through individual steps. The work to create these humanoid types of robots includes many separate technologies used to solve many different problems. Ultimately, they say that the goal for such a development is to have these types of robots working side-by-side with humans in a production environment. The inventors use various tasks to probe and experiment, and to refine the aspects of fine motor control that seem to be, obviously, very required.

Somewhere in that huge, complex product, there are a lot of technology subsystems at play, whether they be miniature actuators or fuzzy logic controllers to take environmental change into account when moving a motor or when touching an object. As each of the subsystems is proven, they will be spun out into many new applications.

On the other hand, though, there are other forces at play that constrain the deployment of advanced technology. And one is in the area of workplace safety and standards. Coming out with a humanoid robot is a huge technological issue in itself. Can you imagine deploying that in a North American industrial setting—where a complex machine capable of exerting considerable power is standing next to a person on a production line—in an intrinsically safe fashion?

AW: How can that issue be addressed?

Jones: This relates to an activity that is happening in the RIA on the committee level, which is standards development. The safety of workers is something that is non-negotiable. But we see a need to take a much finer and scientific approach for providing those levels of intrinsic safety with robotic devices.

For instance, currently, a robot that might lift less than a kilogram is considered in the same fashion as a robot that can deliver 330 kilogram engine blocks. The rules by which you create a safe environment for that automation don’t provide a distinction between those obviously different scenarios.

The RIA is constantly working to refine the robotic safety standards, and to try to create a more versatile approach. I want to emphasize that the RIA is trying to make sure that safety standards are adopted that not only maintain the high levels of safety for North American workers, but also accommodate practical commercial requirements—like payback—that allow automation to be actually used and not ignored because of perceived safety issues.

Robotics have an excellent safety record, and we want to make sure that the safety protocols are put in place to accommodate the variety of technologies that our industry actually generates.

See sidebar to this article: Profile - Trevor Jones

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