February 04, 2014      

“As manufacturing started to disappear, there’s less call for automation.”

Late arrival of first robots, 1988

According to the Australian Robotics and Automation Association (ARRA), an organization of robotics professionals, the first Australian company to manufacture robots was Melbourne’s Machine Dynamics. Founded in 1972, Machine Dynamics was originally a manufacturer of pneumatic equipment for the metal and textile industries, yet soon became a pioneer in robotic applications, designing and manufacturing systems based on aeronautical engineering principles.

In 1988, the company designed, built, and installed a robotic manufacturing line at Ford’s Broadmeadows assembly plant. The line was the first of its kind in Australia, generating a door every 30 seconds, and it remained in operational for many years. The line consisted of 13 spot-weld robots and 13 gantry robots and controllers, all with coordinated movements.

One of the system’s key benefits was reducing tooling changeover time and cost. While previously it had taken five operators an entire shift to re-tool manually, the same task could now be performed by the robots and a single human operator in about two minutes.

Death knell for Aussie automakers

Mitsubishi departed Australia in 2008. Ford, after nearly 100 years of continuous built-in-Australia pride, will cease production in 2016; Ford’s last profitable year was 2003. GM Holden and Toyota depart the very next year.

The Sydney Morning Herald‘s headline read: “Leaves nation’s car industry in peril.” What car industry? There’s nothing left, and nearly 100,000 auto manufacturing and auto-related jobs are doomed.

Here (below) is a video of better days for Machine Dynamics’ robots at the Broadmeadows Ford plant in 1988:

Changing times: Can robots help to turn the tide?

Although automobile manufacturing in Australia is now fading away, a new generation of robot manufacturers has arrived to serve other business sectors.

Sydney-based drone startup Flirtey, for example, recently made news by teaming with nearby textbook rental company Zookal to deliver books to customers via unmanned aerial vehicles (unlike the U.S., it’s legal to use UAVs for commercial purposes in Australia).

Meanwhile, Sydney-based robotics startup Sabre Autonomous Solutions has received a major investment from industrial equipment manufacturer Burwell Technologies, also headquartered in Sydney, to commercialize the world’s first autonomous grit blasting robot. The system is designed to remove sand and scale from a variety of different surfaces.

Another up and coming Australian robot maker is 2Mar Robotics, located in Melbourne, which has developed a voice-controlled robotic arm that’s designed for use by people in wheelchairs. Mounted on a wheelchair, table or bench, the user can direct the arm to move or grip objects via an iPhone or iPad.

Map australia

Still, despite the presence of several promising startups, all is not bright in the world of Australian robotics.

Jonathan Roberts, autonomous systems research program leader for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, lamented the fact that his country has a relatively small robotics manufacturing base.

“Unfortunately, there are not too many Australian robotics manufacturers,” he said, adding that the companies that do exist are primarily focused on creating custom solutions designed to address niche automation issues.

“One size does not fit all, and so companies must be flexible in providing solutions,” Roberts said.

While the Australian robotics manufacturing base is relatively small, there are still areas of significant strength and promise.

“Australia is extremely strong in the area of field robotics, having two of the world’s three largest field robotics groups,” Roberts said.

Field robots are systems designed to work in unstructured environments, often outdoors, that contain dynamic objects, such as mobile equipment and inventory items.

“Farms, mines, and large industrial sites often need such systems, Roberts said. “Autonomy is critical in the area of field robotics; this is where Australia is a world leader,” he added.

mine of the future

The mining industry, in particular, is a longtime Australian robotics hot spot. “Our economy is driven quite strongly by the mining sector,” saod Stefan B. Williams, ARRA’s president.

“There has been a lot of investment over the last five to 10 years in mining, and there’s been a bit of a mining boom, which has brought us through the global financial crisis,” said Williams, who is also a professor of marine robotics at the University of Sydney.

The Australian mining industry is reaping major production efficiency benefits from robotics technologies, inspiring firms to help researchers develop even better systems.

“One major mining organization [Rio Tinto] has invested quite heavily in a robotics research center here at the University of Sydney,” Williams said.

See: Rio Tinto’s $3.6B Bid to Marry Mining to Robotics

That investment has allowed the school to investigate several new robotics technologies.

“We’ve done things ranging from specific machine learning applied to the sensing and modeling of ore bodies right through to consideration of full mine-wide automation,” Williams said.

Falling manufacturing production, however, is hampering the growth of more generalized types of robotics developers and providers.

“In terms of more industrial automation, I’d say the downturn in manufacturing here in Australia could present problems to the robotics industry as a whole,” Williams said. “As manufacturing started to disappear, there’s less call for automation.”

On the other hand, Williams, hopes that the downturn will help more manufacturers appreciate the benefits of automation.

“I think robotics does represent a flexible means of increasing productivity in a lot of manufacturing areas,” he said. “There is an initial, upfront cost, of course, and sometimes industries do have to consider this before taking up robotics in a big way.”

Other business sectors, however, continue to acquire and install automation technologies.

“Australia’s economy is very diverse, but it has a significant mining and agricultural sector,” Roberts said. “These industry sectors look to continue at similar levels to the past, and so the drivers for dependable field robots will remain.”

Robust mining and agriculture automation sales can also benefit manufacturing companies, Roberts said, in that “they can borrow and build from [mining and agriculture systems] what has already been developed.”

Research and development

Developing and sustaining a strong robotics industry will require a steady stream of engineers, entrepreneurs, and other technical and business experts. William believes that Australia is well prepared to meet this demand. “Australia is well regarded, particularly in the academics sphere, in robotics,” he said.

Roberts notes that interest in robotics education and research is growing at many Australian schools.

“Most Australian universities now offer a degree in mechatronics, which is effectively a degree is robotics,” Williams said.

“We have strong Ph.D. programs in a number of institutions around the country, so we?re continuing to develop researchers and capabilities,” he added. “That continues to translate into opportunities that go into the marketplace.”

Robotics innovation also requires a steady stream of financial investments. “The funding for robotics research … comes mostly through the Australian Research Council (ARC), which is similar to the US National Science Foundation,” Williams said.

Williams notedthat the ARC recently provided financial support for robotics research at the Queensland University of Technology.

“It’s the leading institution with a number of partners around the country,” he said. “The government is continuing to invest in (robotics) and sees it as a growth area.”

The ARC has also established programs designed to encourage partnerships between industry partners and academic research organizations. “They’ll match, one to one, any funding that an industrial partner puts into a program, with a only relatively small portion of the investment having to be cash,” Williams said.

The government also offers tax breaks to businesses supporting universities and other research providers. “Some of the big programs we’ve had over the years have been direct partnerships between an industry partner and universities,” Williams said. “That attracts government incentives.”

The results have been impressive, Williams said.

“We’ve had a number of spinoffs [such as Flirtey] that are now bringing in quite substantial contracts, ranging from novel sensors used in robotics all the way through full robotics systems used for a variety of different applications,” he noted.

“We’re seeing projects transition from research and development directly out into the market.”

Looking ahead

As technologies mature, Williams would like to see Australian robotics companies develop systems for a wider customer base, particularly consumer markets. “Domestic robotics is a little less prevalent here, but that seems to be where robotics research is heading — in the home,” he said.

Roberts sees robots assuming new and more complex roles in a variety of situations.

“There is a desire to use robots as assistants to human workers and to work in close proximity to people in future manufacturing situations,” he said. “This is unlike traditional manufacturing, where we have seen robots placed behind safe barriers.”

Such systems will require imaginative and highly skilled designers skilled in a variety of disciplines. “This need to have robots close to people means that the robots must be highly autonomous and respond to a dynamic world,” Roberts said.

The challenge facing Australian developers of next-generation manufacturing robots will be to create truly dependable robots. “They must be safe and they must be ultra-reliable,” Roberts said.

Over the short term, Williams wasn’t daunted by predictions of order falloffs in existing key robotics markets, particularly mining. “They are talking about a bit of a slowdown in investment in mining as the focus moves from exploration and development to production,” he said.

Yet he noted that mine operators have also come to depend on robots to keep production rates high and costs low. “It’s a pretty harsh environment where these mines are located and automation does have a lot of promise there,” he said.

Roberts was generally upbeat about the future of Australian robotics.

“It seems that robots are an inevitable technology and that now is the time to be in the robotics R&D sector,” he said. “We are in a very strong position, and it’s an exciting time to be a robotics geek.”

See related:

Re-energizing Manufacturing Down Under with Robotics

Towards Simpler Robotic Systems