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What's Next for Robots?

Robotics executives look toward commercial robot technologies in charting the direction for future factory robots, as well as for new market opportunities.

The Roomba Scheduler Vacuuming Robot from iRobot Corp.automatically cleans floors on a schedule set by the user.
The Roomba Scheduler Vacuuming Robot from iRobot Corp.automatically cleans floors on a schedule set by the user.

North American industrial robot vendors are on pace for a record number of new robot orders in 2005, according to recent figures released by the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based trade group. But the robotics industry has long been wary of overdependence on the automotive industry, which accounted for a big part of this year’s order surge. And at the RIA-sponsored Robotics Industry Forum, Nov. 10-11, in Orlando, Fla., much of the focus among robot industry executives was on the continuing need to develop new markets for robot products.

During a luncheon presentation at the event, incoming RIA President Trevor Jones, director of OEM business development for Thermo Electron Corp., Burlington, Ontario, Canada, unveiled plans to launch a “New Markets Program” in January, by which RIA members will be able to submit ideas for new market development. An RIA New Markets committee will select ideas to receive Association funding “that will lead to the development of information on new markets,” Jones said. This information will then be shared with the membership.

Cleaning up

In considering new directions for the robot industry, several speakers at the Forum pointed to the success of Roomba—a carpet cleaning robot developed by iRobot Corp., of Burlington, Mass.—as well as other recent commercial adaptations of robotic technology. To date, more than 1.5 million Roomba robots have been sold, and iRobot stock began trading publicly in November.

“Their expectation is that they’re going to have a 10 times better market capitalization than I have. So I’m trying to figure out who’s the smart guy here,” quipped Robert Bucher, chief executive officer at Adept Technology Inc., a Livermore, Calif.-based industrial robotics and vision vendor, in a reference to iRobot’s initial public offering.

During a presentation titled, “Robotics: Moving Beyond the Factory Floor,” Bucher said that market opportunities appear better for non-industrial robots than for traditional industrial robots. “So what we’re trying to do [at Adept] is to start dissecting our technology to figure out how we can play in some of these markets, because we have to look at new additions, new technologies and new opportunities for the company,” Bucher told the Orlando audience.

Lean robots

That’s not to say, of course, that industrial robots are going away. Plenty of discussion at the event centered on ways in which factory robots will change and adapt in the future. One vision came from Mike Calardo, an ABB Inc. robotics vice president and chairman of the RIA’s Standards Development Committee, who described what he called “lean, next generation robots.”

Like others, Calardo made reference to Roomba, as well as to recent demonstrations of humanoid robots by several heavyweight Japanese companies. Toyota, for example, has recently shown robots capable of playing musical instruments, and has created a new division aimed at developing “partner robots” designed to function as personal assistants for humans.

In surveying the market, Calardo noted that “the gap between industrial robots and commercial robots is narrowing.” He added that some characteristics of the current crop of commercial and consumer-oriented robotic creations may help point the way for designers of future industrial robots. Just as commercial robots are often intended for interaction with people, the main characteristic of lean, next generation robots for industrial use is that they will be capable of working more closely with humans, Calardo said.

From a standards perspective, this will mean a change of course relating to safety, he observed. The original RIA 15.06 Safety Standard was published in 1986, and subsequent revisions to the standard in 1992 and 1999 resulted in higher levels of safety. But each revision also led to more restrictions, including higher fences, more use of emergency stops and more ways to keep humans away from the automation, Calardo observed. “Safe meant ‘stop’ whenever a human was too close.”

Safety rules change

But with the emergence of lean, next generation robots, “the trend that ‘safer means more restrictions’ will be a thing of the past,” Calardo predicted. Future industrial robots will use a range of technologies that will have the potential to not only improve safety, but also to reduce cost and floor space requirements, while being much less restrictive to human intervention, he said.

Among other things, mechanical safety switches on robots will be replaced by redundant software control logic of the kind used today in safety programmable logic controllers (PLCs), Calardo said. Lean, next generation robots will use technologies such as laser scanners that can detect the intrusion of people into certain “zones” within a robot work cell. This will enable robots that can reduce operating speed when a person is near, but stop only when that person is so close as to be in danger, Calardo observed.

Benefits will include less lost time due to accidental stoppages, and smaller cell layouts due to shorter required stopping distances. The new safety technologies will also contribute to the “lean” goal of reduced waste and materials by reducing the need for traditional fencing and safety barriers, Calardo explained.

Calardo noted that this vision for next generation industrial robots will require new rules and an improved understanding of the technologies involved, as well as new robot safety and performance standards. It’s an area that the RIA Standards Development Committee is beginning to address, he told the Orlando audience.

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