June 01, 2016      

Mobile robots seem like old news — after all, Amazon.com Inc. bought Kiva Systems Inc. back in 2012, so what else is new? Quite a bit, actually. Danish startup Mobile Industrial Robots ApS, or MiR, is making its entry into the U.S. market.

Amazon’s purchase of Kiva, now Amazon Robots, brought its logistics automation in-house, prompting a host of other companies to look elsewhere for factory and warehouse robotics.

The market for warehouse robotics will expand at a compound annual growth rate of about 11 percent, according to Research and Markets. The International Federation of Robotics predicts that the market for mobile robots will grow from 2,164 units sold in 2014 to 16,000 units in 2018, but MiR is even more optimistic.

Increasing levels of autonomy, safety, and flexibility, as well as potential cost savings, will keep this robotics sector competitive.

MiR has appointed Ed Mullen as national sales manager for North America, as its product became available in the U.S. on April 1. Robotics Business Review recently chatted with Mullen.

In addition, we visited MiR’s headquarters in Odense, Denmark, leading into this week’s RoboBusiness Europe 2016.

MiR100 rolls into logistics automation

Mobile Industrial Robots was founded in 2013 by alumni from collaborative robot company Universal Robots A/S.

MiR’s flagship product is the autonomous MiR100, so named for its 100-kg (220-lb.) payload capacity. It can also tow carts weighing 300 kg or 660 lb., and the carts don’t need modification.

MiR CEO Thomas Visti

MiR CEO Thomas Visti spoke before RoboBusiness Europe.

After an early Lego prototype, “Version 1.0” of MiR was created in autumn of 2014, said Thomas Visti, CEO of Mobile Industrial Robots.

The mobile robot is already in use in more than 20 countries. Mullen distinguished between autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).

“AGVs include automated forklifts and pallet lifts,” he said. “They require some kind of markers or a magnetic strip or rail embedded in the floor. An AGV knows its path and can’t skew away from it. There are some sensors to stop it if something crosses its path.”

“MiR is an autonomous mobile robot,” Mullen explained. “Its architecture allows it to import or create a set of maps, similar to GPS. Then we can teach it pickup and drop-off points and tell it where to go. MiR100 will then decide the best route, depending on obstacles.”

“MiR100 includes multiple sensory inputs,” Mullen said. “The base system is dual laser scanners, with a 360-degree read of rows in a facility.”

The AMR also includes ultrasonic sensors and 3D cameras for perception of what’s above. In addition, it includes a gyroscope, which could be useful on ramps.

All the data is fed into a custom microprocessor that runs guidance algorithms.

“This is a great fit for factories, because it can choose different routes,” Mullen said. “The robots operate on their own wireless LAN and can also connect to the company network.”

The MiR100 includes two drive wheels and four caster wheels, and its endurance depends on the payload but ranges about six to 12 hours. It moves at about 1.5 meters per second (3 mph).

The robot can autonomously return to a charging station, and its lights change in color depending on what it’s doing.

Controls and safety in numbers

Tasks are shared locally and are initiated by the supervisory system run over Wi-Fi from a tablet or laptop.

“In fact, it can be controlled from a browser on a smartphone,” Mullen said. “It’s all about how easily and quickly users can get the product up and running. We’ve made it easy to build maps, set points and tasks, and manually teach the robot.”

“Eighty to 90 percent of our customers program the robot themselves,” said Visti.

The MiR100, which is assembled in Denmark, conforms to the EN 1525 guidelines for safe navigation for robots, according to Mullen. It can safely move forward and backward (or only forward, when towing a cart).

“It meets a Category 4, Performance Level E system — the safety rating feeds into PLCs [programmable logic controllers], redundant relays, processors and sensors,” he said. “We’re the only mobile supplier that meets a full ratings.”

Fleet management is open

MiR’s fleet package can “act as an air-traffic controller for the robots,” said Mullen. The fleet package is sold separately and can integrate into a company’s supply-chain and enterprise resource management software.

“Everything is open; nothing is closed,” he said about the user interface, navigation, and fleet management. “Anyone who purchases the robot has full access to programmability.”

MiR’s fleet management software is based on Linux and uses the REST interface, said Visti.

“Any changes to one will propagate to the rest of the fleet,” he added. “A company in Singapore is exploring cloud-based navigation.”

When asked about the emerging industrial Internet of Things, Mullen responded, “We could [someday] create a seamless link to tell what a robot does throughout the day.”

Saving shoe leather in logistics facilities

Warehouse and factory workers still spend a lot of time and energy walking among shelves of products rather than doing the more complex task of picking and sorting them. “If a company’s square footage gets to a certain point, it should consider automation,” Mullen said.

“While the majority of robots are in the automotive and electronics industries, according to the International Federation of Robotics … with mobile technology, we’re not limited to a certain vertical or type of industry to be successful,” he noted. “For example, airports are not where a traditional industrial automation distributor would call.”

“The commercial front end is another area without a lot of automation, as well as hospitals and many factories,” Mullen said. “Our product can be used in any type of industry.”

Distributors give the MiR100 a hand

The mobile base’s open platform can hook into any type of secondary robot, for a gripper, bin, or cart. All accessories to date have been developed by MiR’s distribution partners. The company has 43 partners.

“The design concept of the robot allows it to interface with whatever you want it to — vision systems, conveyors, RFID reader, a pick-and-place arm — it can be done easily,” he said.

MiR doesn’t make direct sales, but it has signed up four distributors in the U.S. so far. “The distributors know the local market needs,” Mullen said.

Distributors have integrated Universal Robots’ UR3 and UR5 collaborative robot arms, and software developers have provided a UR interface within MiR100’s operating system.

“At the click of a button, the user is talking with the UR system,” Mullen said.

Satisfied customers are the best reward

Mobile Industrial Robots received a DIRA Automation Award from the Danish prime minister last year. At less than $30,000, half the price of its nearest competitor, the MiR100 should succeed in the U.S., said Mullen.

“We’ve kept the price down by using standard components,” Visti said. “Customers can get a 12-month return on investment.”

Existing customers include Airbus, Boston Consulting Group, Flextronic, and Gucci, said Visti. Hospitals in Denmark and Sweden are also using the mobile robot.

“The U.S. is ahead of Europe in mobile robot use,” Visti said. “Our sales office in New York has received a lot of interest, and we hope to open a sales office in China next year.”

MiR’s sales have increased from one unit in 2013 to 50 in 2015, and 150 this year. The company has doubled in size to 25 employees this year, and it will be moving to new facilities next week.

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