January 03, 2019      

While numerous vendors are chasing the warehousing and e-commerce markets for autonomous mobile robots, one innovative company is offering its own innovative AMRs for manufacturing and other applications.

The factory floor is a more challenging space that’s ripe for automation, said Waypoint Robotics Inc. CEO and co-founder Jason Walker. The company’s Vector AMRs can go from a crate on the dock to fully autonomous navigation in 15 minutes, he told Robotics Business Review during a recent site visit.

Using robots to build robots

Waypoint Robotics‘ team can assemble 10 robots a day at its facility in Merrimack, N.H. This may not sound like a lot, but the company has arranged its layout so that it can use its own robots in the process.

“Our robots are integrated with our inventory and infrastructure — the same as our customers’ workflow,” said Walker. “They are the result of deliberate choices.”

Vector’s chassis and gearbox are made in New Hampshire, its wheels come from Indiana, and its batteries come from Texas. Vector’s omnidirectional wheels come out of research for the U.S. Navy.

“It can be challenging to work in complex, dynamic industrial environments with AMRs, but Vector is more precise as it approaches waypoints,” Walker explained. “It’s 10 times faster than differential robot wheels, which must edge toward a point.”

Waypoint also offers the CuffLink-RK for making Robotiq’s grippers plug and play with Kinova’s collaborative robot arms. What about mobile manipulation?

“Cobot arms really move only when the robot is stationary,” Walker noted. “This requires more power in the footprint, but safety ratings would have to include the payload and connected systems.”

“We’ll leave mobile manipulation to the researchers, but there are unrealistically high expectations,” he said. “We do provide the ports for attachments.”

AMRs with best-in-class navigation

To safely and swiftly move materials in manufacturing facilities, Vector needs to move autonomously in a dynamic environment.

Vector AMRs are designed to be rugged and move quickly and accurately.

Source: Waypoint Robotics

“We’ve had several customers, who have done extensive tests on their own, come to us and say that our navigation is the best in the world,” Walker said. “This is a key differentiator for us.”

For navigation and safety, Vector Navigator Elite includes a Velodyne 3D lidar.

“With 2D lasers, you can only see the plane, so a lot of our customers opt to have 3D perception so they don’t have to worry about keep-out zones or if an employee left something,” Walker said. “Our customers can say ‘Go from Point A to Point B,’ even if there’s something in the way.”

Also, “with the EnZone modular power system, a user doesn’t have to worry about battery life,” he said. “The robot will go charge itself in downtime.”

ROS and SaaS ease adoption

On the software side, Waypoint’s Dispatcher-SDK is built on the Robot Operating System (ROS) and is open to developers. This open architecture is designed to help users adopt AMRs and ease setup and configuration.

For instance, Waypoint has designed its AMRs to easily connect with conveyors, elevators, and networked systems.

“Whistle, which is part of our Dispatcher cloud-based operations software, uses ‘playlists’ of mapped routes and waypoints,” Walker said. “The playlists can appear like elevator call buttons, which are intuitive. The user has common-sense robot controls such as, ‘Come here.'”

Dispatcher-SDK from Waypoint Robotics

Source: Waypoint Robotics

Dispatcher is available through a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model in four tiers, Walker said. The first is the free Premium service, which provides expert assistance as companies beta-test Waypoint’s robots.

The second level is Professional, which allows users to save multiple maps and add behaviors to waypoints.

The third tier is Industrial, which is designed to allow small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) to manage multiple robots.

At the Enterprise tier, the operator can manage all robots as a single organism or “hive mind,” said Walker.

Partners have licensed Waypoint’s technology for building products on top of its AMRs, such as disinfecting and research robots.

“To start a robotics company, you need a novel application and must bring hardware and an interface to market. You then have to start design and manufacturing,” Walker said. “With our platform, we can shave two to four years off that time. We can do the prototype with them.”

‘Bobby-first’ approach to development

Ease of use on the shop floor is key to Waypoint Robotics’ success. “We prefer to talk to the workforce, the people on the line whose jobs we can make easier and who will decide how to use the robots,” said Walker.

“We’ve demonstrated Vector to the people pushing a cart on a factory floor and hating it,” he added. “We need to help them by giving them a nail gun instead of a hammer.”

“We’ve architected Dispatcher from Day 1 with the philosophy of ‘Bobby first.’ Bobby is a persona of someone who has been at the factory for 15 years … he knows that job better than anyone,” said Walker. “We’re building a product for Bobby, so that we can go into that situation and give him a tool that he can use and reconfigure if needed.”

“If the CFO [chief financial officer] is looking over, it’s impossible not to see the benefit,” he said. “Retaining talent also has value.”

Market will increase steadily

The U.S. market for mobile robotics software will increase from $400.3 million in 2016 to 3.5 billion by 2024, predicts Global Market Insights.

Unlike most AMR providers, Waypoint serves complex and variable manufacturing environments rather than supply chains, Walker said.

“There are 100 companies fighting over being the next Kiva for warehousing, but they have to limit capabilities and de-tune them for the specific application,” he said, referring to Kiva Systems, now Amazon Robotics. “By focusing on manufacturing, that’s a more interesting and difficult problem.”

“Waypoint’s systems are more broadly capable as a smart autonomous mobile robot,” Walker noted.

Note: Editor Keith Shaw contributed to this article.