November 09, 2017      

Small and midsize enterprises are increasingly looking to automation, but how can the industry make adoption easier? Collaborative robots, or cobots, and the best practices of “lean robotics” can improve ease of use, says Sam Bouchard, CEO and co-founder of Robotiq.

In the brief video below, Bouchard chats with editor Steve Crowe at RoboBusiness 2017 in Santa Clara, Calif. Bouchard touches on topics from his session on “Increasing Productivity With Cobots,” part of our track on “How to Get ROI From Robotics.”

As he explains, Robotiq was founded “in 2008 … enable end users to deploy robots on their own on the manufacturing floor.” The company offers a two-finger adaptive gripper and a force torque sensor, among other products for cobots.

What are some of the benefits of cobots for smaller companies compared with traditional industrial automation? Crowe asks.

“When people see collaborative robots, the first thing they see is the fact they have no fences,” Bouchard responds. “But in reality, the main reason driver why people adopt these robots is because of their ease of use.”

“Because they’re easier to use, [smaller businesses] can do more on their own; they have better return on investment,” he adds. “They can adapt it, and if you have a smaller company or a company that changes a lot, then you can keep it in control and continuously improve your work cell and adapt it as your manufacturing needs change.”

Cobot ease of use leads to faster ROI

In fact, the return on investment (ROI) for smaller installations is usually under a year, says Bouchard. Popular applications for Robotiq’s products include machine tending, pick and place, packing and unpacking, and assembling.

However, collaborative robots still have room for improvement for more complex things, he says. This includes tasks that require lots of sensors, complicated trajectories, handling multiple parts, or a process that is complicated where a robot has to learn rather than be programmed.

Robotiq recently launched an online monitoring tool to work with Universal Robots’ arms, and Robotiq’s Wrist Camera has helped WALT Machine Inc. double its throughput.

Bouchard also cites Lowercase NYC, a small eyewear manufacturer where “everyone needs to do everything.” The robots put parts in a machine, freeing up people for higher-value tasks.

By contrast, larger companies such as Tier 1 automotive suppliers are already well-versed in automation and have a different view of ease of use.

“They’re using cobots to approach [production] differently,” says Bouchard. “They’re looking at robots as a bottom-up, tool approach.”

The rise of ‘lean robotics’

Crowe asks Bouchard about his new book, Lean Robotics.

“It really came from the fact that we see hundreds of projects every month, so a lot of people contact us and say, ‘Can we do this with robots?'” he says. “Whether it’s a small or big company … whatever the industry, they always go through the same process. I thought, hey, we should define this process and make it available for everybody.”

“The complexity of robotics cell deployment in manufacturing is still complex,” Bouchard says. By explaining the lean robotics methodology and building relatively simple technologies, Robotiq wants to build users’ robotics skills, he adds.

“They see why they need to automate, and they know really well their processes, which is super-important to deploy robots,” says Bouchard. “Many of our customers are first-time robot users, but even the more advanced robotics people, because they were used to industrial automation and used to working with system integrators — that’s a different approach with collaborative robots.”

“With this bottom-up approach, more of a robot as a tool approach, then it allows them to look at problems differently,” he says.

Bouchard outlines the following four principles of lean robotics:

  1. Put people before robots — robots are a tool; this is interesting for the workers, who can leverage their process knowledge, but it’s also interesting for the company and mitigates the risk
  2. Focus on the robot cell output — different types of robots are interesting, but the goal is to produce something, and any process should serve that goal
  3. Eliminate waste — “People don’t realize how much waste there is in design and integration,” he says.
  4. Build engineering and project management skills among the staff and learn by doing

What’s next?

About 40% of Robotiq’s business is in North America, with another 40% in Europe and 20% in Asia. But Canada-based Robotiq isn’t resting on its laurels.

“We just launched new product that allows people to monitor their robots — that’s at the very end of the [adoption and engineering] process,” Bouchard says. “Now at the end, you’re going to have something to measure what is the result of this effort and improve the performance of your robots.”

“We also have a software product for the very beginning of the process. How do you map manual the manual process?” he adds. “These are all software products. The next products will be building blocks and ways to integrate all these these together to make it flow and reduce the time to deploy these robots.”

Machine learning and deep learning will also affect the capabilities of collaborative robots and software controls, Bouchard says.

However, they “need a tremendous amounts of data,” he says. “The end goal, obviously, is to have a robot that can understand, abstract the world around us. So you don’t need to program it step by step.”

“I believe that AI can be very useful to not necessarily to automate the task, but also automate the automation” for greater efficiency, says Bouchard. “Maybe not have completely autonomous robots but maybe give some bits of intelligence, so more the idea of providing skills to the robots rather than general intelligence that’s going to be further down the road.”

Canadian robotics got its start with the space agency and McGill University.

Canadian robotics got its start with the nation’s space agency and McGill University.

Why Canada?

Crowe notes that he was impressed at the vibrant Canadian robotics ecosystem during the recent Robotiq User Conference in Montreal.

“There is a strong history of robotics research in Canada; a lot of it came from the Canadian space agency. It started at McGill [University],” Bouchard says. “Now there’s Kinova, there’s RobotShop, there’s us, and there are other startups in the province.”

“It comes from continued investment in robotics over the years,” Bouchard says. “Now what we need to build on top of this is really the entrepreneurial knowledge. We want to not only have great technologies but to capture value with these technologies and sell these robotics technologies to the world.”