September 07, 2011      

A keynote presenter at Robotics Trends’ September 14 Virtual Event, New Applications for Industrial Robotics, Charlie Miller, a vice president of sales for ABB Robotics, North America, has more than 25 years experience in the industrial robotics industry. During that time, he’s served in a variety of roles, including project engineering, product management, and sales management. Miller’s topic at RT’s upcoming event will be articulated-arm robots, commonly known as “industrial robots,” which have recently begun expanding into exciting new areas, including commercial and entertainment applications. Miller will examine some of these applications and the enhanced precision, agility, and programming sophistication that have made them possible. In a recent interview with Mark Ingebretsen, editor, Robotics Trends, he offered a glimpse of what robots will soon be able to do.

RT: How would you define articulated arm robots?

Miller: In manufacturing, the most common type of robot is the articulated arm robot. A typical robotic arm is made up of between four and seven moving joints, which we call axes. A six-axis robot is made up of seven parts joined by six joints, each controlled by a servo motor. What really makes articulated arm robots attractive for industrial applications is the precision and strength with which these motors operate, allowing a computer to repeat a series of movements over and over in exactly the same manner.

RT: What are some uses of articulated arm robots outside of manufacturing?

Miller: One of the most popular applications is one we’ve done for the Bon Jovi concerts, using the mechanical arms as a stage prop. Over the last year and a half we’ve had five robots accompanying Bon Jovi, during his concert tour. We have an affiliation with a company called Robotic Arts. For the past several years we’ve worked with the company to develop a lot of interesting technologies that are driving the use of robots into new areas, everything from retail robotics to commercial applications to entertainment. We’re working with several casinos right now and several shopping venues to utilize robots in a lot of previously unexplored applications.

RT: Can you give me an example of an applications in a retail environment?

Miller: You may have noticed that on almost every corner of a busy street these days, there are people holding signs in order to attract customers into a nearby store. The people move the signs so they attract more attention. A stagnant sign just doesn’t have the eye-catching capability that a moving sign would. We are working with a couple of malls to create robots able to move signs so that they can entice people to an attraction. The robots are programmable, they’re easy to use, and the message can be changed very quickly. The use of the robot provides a fun factor, which offers real commercial value to the customer.

RT How does ABB develop ideas like a robotic moving sign? Do you think of the application and then approach a potential customer, or does the customer approach you?

Miller: It occurs in a variety of ways. Another interesting robotic application has to do with the Yotel hotel chain. Yotel’s Manhattan property uses a robot luggage retrieval system. You can watch the robot retrieve luggage through a large window right on from the sidewalk. When guests want to store their luggage after they check out, they’d normally need the help of a bell hop. One of ABB’s  System Integrators  developed a system for  the hotel, which the company calls a Yobot, in keeping with the hotel group’s futuristic theme. It’s a standard industrial robot. But it’s been programmed to pick up the luggage, hand out a luggage tag, and it even says something akin to “I’ll store your luggage for you.” When you come back after a day of business, you punch in your ticket number, and the robot retrieves your luggage.  

 RT: What sort of applications do you see for articulated arm robots – say – five years from now?

Miller: We think the technology enablers in robotics are going to double or triple in the next few years. That will result in applications, which we can’t even perceive today, becoming a reality in five years. High performance computing, is one example. A computer’s increased processing power is allowing robots to perform tasks more accurately and at a lower cost. One of the areas we’re looking into is the FRIDA concept robot, which will become increasingly able to safely work alongside humans. At present this isn’t entirely possible. However, the enabling technologies are coming, and this will allow us to really expand the number of applications.

RT: I can’t close this interview without asking about the recent mention of ABB in the news media as a possible supplier to Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturer that announced it planned to purchase one million robots during the next three years.

Miller: ABB has worked with Foxconn before. What I will say, is that if somebody came to us and wanted to buy one million robots, we’d certainly listen to them.