Analysis: 5 Key Robotics Trends from ProMat and Automate 2019

The lines were long for attendees wishing to receive a beer poured by this Yaskawa robot. Source: Robotics Business Review

April 16, 2019      

CHICAGO – After three-plus days of seeing robots at last week’s ProMat and Automate trade show event — large, small, static, and mobile — it’s become clear that robotics and automation is more than just a “kick the tires” technology for many companies. Now that I’ve had some time to step back, check my notes, and reflect on news announcements and meetings with top robotics leaders, I’ve come away with five key robotics trends on the state of the industry in 2019 so far.

Trend #1: Collaboration that focuses on applications

At both shows, robotics companies weren’t just showing off their robots and telling customers, “Just buy this and everything will be fine.” Instead, they were displaying how their robots could perform certain tasks or how a complete system could solve a particular problem for a manufacturer. In other words, they were offering robotic applications instead of just robots or robot parts.

RightHand Robotics, for example, didn’t just display their very cool robot tool that combines a three-finger gripper with a vacuum gripper, which is impressive enough. Instead, they created the RightPick2 system, which shows off the gripper, the cobot arm (usually a Universal Robots cobot), the vision system (utilizing Intel RealSense cameras), and talking about the software and processors inside the RightPick2. Going beyond that, however, the company has done an outstanding job of also showing how the system can work with other partners, including Tompkins Robotics and Vecna Robotics, to name a few.

Universal Robots, as well, used the show to create zones of applications that the cobot arms could perform, including machine tending, packaging, assembly, and processing. The company did this to not only show that these processes could be handled by a cobot, but also to showcase partners, especially within its very large UR+ ecosystem of partners.

Jurgen von Hollen Universal Robots

Jurgen von Hollen, Universal Robots

“If you’re only focused on the cobot and not on the complete application, you may believe you’re adding a lot of value to your customer,” Universal Robots President Jürgen von Hollen told me at the show. “But you actually don’t know. It might be some other part of the application that’s got nothing to do with a cobot that’s actually more of a problem. That’s why it was very critical for me, last year, that we started our applications team to really start understanding what does driving applications actually mean for the customer.”

It feels like more of the cobot and gripper/end-of-arm tool companies at Automate were doing the collaboration piece than those mobile robot companies that were displaying at ProMat, but several companies I spoke with are also seeing the value of automating more of the process beyond just having robots “move materials from Point A to Point B.”

For example, startup ROEQ was showing off its top roller mobile systems, which take materials to Point B and then moves it to a fixed conveyor system – Point C, D, etc. The top rollers that work with mobile robots from Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) are also part of a similar ecosystem that MiR is setting up, replicating the UR+ model. This makes sense, since MiR and UR are both part of the Denmark robotics cluster, as well as both owned by Teradyne.

Trend #2: Adding pieces to the robot puzzle

On the ProMat side, I saw several cases where companies that launched with a single robot a few years ago are now adding additional pieces to create or extend a particular process or task. Not only does this give the company additional potential revenue on the hardware side, but it also creates more opportunities for them to create more automated processes or additional links in the supply chain.

For example, 6 River Systems talked about its new Mobile Sort system, which enables warehouse operators to fill batched orders with its existing 6 River mobile robots (aka “Chucks”).

IAM Robotics Bolt trends article

The new Bolt robot from IAM Robotics. Source: Robotics Business Review

At the IAM Robotics booth, company officials were showing off Bolt, a new mobile robot that can take bins picked by its Swift mobile manipulator robot and then deliver the goods to an existing conveyor system.

GreyOrange, which has a fleet of its Butler mobile robots delivering in goods-to-person scenarios, was showing its Flexo mobile robots designed for modular sortation purposes.

Meanwhile, the folks at Brain Corp used the show to highlight its new concept robot for the grocery and in-store shelving market, to demonstrate how its BrainOS software could give autonomy to existing mobile carts and other devices beyond the commercial floor cleaning systems.

Whether these companies are creating new systems to generate more revenue on the hardware side, or to tell customers that they can create larger processes beyond the “move from A to B” basics, it’s clear they want to offer more options for customers.

Trend #3: Keeping it simple, stupid!

By most accounts, teaching or programming a robot how to perform a particular task is a complicated and difficult process. At the Yaskawa booth, for example, they had a “robotic bartender” pouring draft beer for attendees. One of the engineers at the booth told me it took a few weeks of programming to get the robot to accurately grab the cup and move it to the correct beer pouring spot (attendees could choose from at least two beer options).

Most companies showcasing robot arms touted either simpler software from existing options (such as improved interfaces for teaching pendants), or they touted new methods that enabled gesture-based approaches on teaching a cobot how to perform a simple task. At the Productive Robotics booth, for example, it didn’t take me (yes, me!) long to teach one of their OB7 cobots to pick up an object and move it to another location. Thankfully, the Productive Robotics team then also showed me other ways to expand beyond pick-and-place, such as opening a CNC machine door, or how it could see specific objects to grab in case the object was in the wrong location (or if a different object was on the table).

At the Ready Robotics booth, the company was showing its Forge suite of products, which aim to unify cross-robotic programming and control. The Forge suite includes a hardware controller called Forge/Ctrl running the Forge/OS software, which then “empowers anyone to intuitively control industrial and collaborative robots.” The Forge suite utilizes one interface across multiple robot brands, “creating a programming experience so far beyond easy it feels intuitive with no previous robotic experience required,” said Ready Robotics.

The company’s booth included 11 different robots and eight live robotic demonstrations that showcased its software – including having a UR-10e cobot putt a golf ball into a hole, or bowl a strike with a CR-15iA cobot from FANUC.

As more companies begin to deploy robots in their operations, especially as small and midsize companies buy or lease them, making sure the robots can be easily programmed will be key. Fortunately, most of the companies on the Automate and ProMat floors understood this.

Trend #4: Larger loads, bigger markets

While large industrial robots have been able to pick up large loads before, on the mobile side there have been limitations on the payloads. At this year’s show, those payloads are getting larger.

Waypoint Robotics MAV3K R2-D2 article

The MAV3K robot from Waypoint Robotics can support heavier loads for manufacturing environments. Source: Waypoint Robotics

MiR introduced its new MiR1000 that can move around goods that weigh up to 1 ton, and Waypoint Robotics showed off its MAV3K (pronounced “May-Vick”) mobile platform with a 3-ton capacity. Whoah.

For those mobile robot companies aiming their products at the manufacturing space, these payload numbers will matter more for larger parts or larger bundles, or for boxes/pallets that require these weights. Even on the robotic lift truck side of things, I saw larger vehicles with autonomous capabilities. The new robotic lift truck from Yale Materials Handling, for example, was loading and unloading pallets onto shelves three levels high and two pallets deep. Robotic lift truck veterans Seegrid and Vecna also displayed their latest autonomous vehicles for carrying heavier loads.

For these companies, this opens up new markets and opportunities that they might not have had in the past – and companies that need those loads moved around the factory floor can now look at autonomous mobile robots as an option.

Trend #5: Deployments show robotics maturity

Even before the show began, I was noticing a general maturity in the mobile robotics space – company announcements about new partnerships, customers, and deployments all showed that companies within the supply chain space are going beyond the pilot phase into real-world usage (check out our free download titled “Mobile Robots Grow Up” for more details).

At the show, companies also announced further deployments and partnerships, including Brain Corp announcing that it would provide an additional 1,500 robotic floor cleaners to Walmart nationwide by the end of the year. Previously, the company had announced 360 robotic floor cleaners powered by the company’s BrainOS were working at the world’s largest retailer.

6 River Systems showcased its partnership with Office Depot and other companies, and also announced a new partnership with Sport Chek, Canada’s largest retailer of sports clothing and equipment. Locus Robotics also highlighted key partnerships and customers as well.

For newer robotics companies, proving that customers are finding value from their offerings is a key difference-maker for end users thinking about deploying robotics at their own locations. I would expect to see additional customer announcements and partnerships in this space as the year continues.

But wait, there’s more!

We’re not quite done yet with our ProMat and Automate coverage here at Robotics Business Review. In addition to some additional company news, we plan on publishing some Q&A interviews with key robotics leaders and showing off some videos we made while we were at the event. As always, stay tuned!