At the Automate and ProMat shows in Chicago earlier this month, a large trend was companies teaming up to provide customers with applications to help automate a particular task, rather than just selling them a component or robot.
Quebec City-based Robotiq is on the forefront of this trend, working alongside with Universal Robots and other collaborative robot companies to provide a series of end-of-arm tools for companies in the automotive, aerospace, electronics and general machining space.
At the event, Robotics Business Review sat down with Jean-Philippe Jobin, the company’s CTO, to talk about the evolution of gripper, the maturity of cobots, and how cobots and robots can help bring manufacturing back to North America.
RBR: What is the current state of cobots compared with when Robotiq first started working with cobots, and even before then when the company was founded?
Jobin: A lot of things have changed in the cobot industry over the last five years. If you go back to the beginning, it was early adopters and they were not looking at speed and reliability – it was new, it’s never been done, and ‘I need that.’ Now, people are looking at them, they want ROI – so it needs to go fast and it needs to prove itself. I think it’s important for the end user to have reliability and good quality. The good news is the products have evolved generally in the industry in such a way to sustain it.
To give a brief history of the business – it was founded a little bit more than 10 years ago, and we started with a three-finger gripper, which was the technology at the university where we had all the three co-founders. The idea was to make an industrial product, and when we launched it was compatible on the main industrial robots in the field. After a year or two we realized it was nice, but it was probably too adaptive and too pricey for what was needed.
We continued to sell in industrial robots for roughly five years, and then five to six years ago, we decided to change the focus of the business, focusing on cobots. We realized there was a good match between those products and our products, but mostly between our vision of what should be the robotics and what the customer needs – meaning simplicity of use, and simplicity of programming, and that an end user doesn’t need three years of education in order to make that happen.
Labor pains, need for cobot standards
RBR: What are some of the big pain points in manufacturing that cobots are attempting to address?
Jobin: The big issue is the difficulty to find workers – that’s true in the U.S. and Canada, and even in Asia – it’s difficult to find people to do those dull, difficult, and dangerous jobs. Cobots and what we’re bringing is enabling companies to address that labor shortage.
That said, the big blocker for a lot of them right now is the difficulty to integrate the parts. The cobot industry at this point is not perfect – there’s still not much standardization. It’s not about the arm, it’s not about the gripper at the end, it’s about the application itself. You need a conveyor, you need to feed the part, you need to have something at the end to gather the parts and handshake with a CNC machine. So the big problem right now is the lack of standardization and the difficulty to integrate everything.
RBR: Do you feel that there still needs to be a broader standard within the cobot ecosystem?
Jobin: Definitely. Nowadays, most of the cobots are following the standard that UR used for the faceplate and coupling. It’s an ISO pattern that is used, and most of the cobots are following that track. But that’s true only for that. All of them are not using the same path for the communication protocol, the OS they use are different, and the pinout at the connector wrists are different.
For example, even though companies are using an M8 connector, they are not using the same pinout. Pin 1 means something, Pin 2 means something else. So there’s definitely a need for a standard, but I don’t believe that it will come from the government. It would need to come from the industry and have everyone say, ‘Why don’t we all sit down together and decide something?’
RBR: Who has to drive that? Is it an industry association, a consortium of companies, or some other group?
Jobin: I thought that UR being so dominant that the others would follow up, but it’s not the case. Last year we were happy to launch our Hand-E Adaptive Gripper and the 2F-85 and 2F-140 Adaptive Grippers connected at the wrist of the robot. We were able to influence UR, saying ‘Why don’t you use our standard of communication, which everybody knows – RS-485. With UR and Robotiq using the same, why not have others join us, and even our competition?
The best advice to cobot brands I could give right now is if you follow the standard of UR, you should have access directly to all of their new UR+ platform partners right away, so why would we want to do something else? But I don’t know if they want to give all of that away to UR, I don’t know. I think at the end if the customer and the integrator will benefit the most from that, if that’s the case it will have an effect on us as suppliers, and the sales cycle would be shorter because of that.
Expanding the gripper ecosystem
RBR: Let’s talk a little about the products you announced at the show. What was it about the marketplace that led to the creation of the AirPick and EPick vacuum grippers?
Jobin: Last year we launched the Hand-E Gripper, which was a third member of the family of our adaptive grippers. We also launched a new revision of our Adaptive Grippers. It was important for us to have a family of mechanical grippers in order to attack many different applications. What we want to do with the vacuum is exactly the same thing. We want to extend this gripper family to the 2D part shape – stuff that could be picked by the surface instead of on the edge. We thought there’s kind of a gap right now – meaning that there’s some solutions available right now from the competition, but it’s not strong, and really available with easy-to-use software, and a service associated to that with many of the switches can support those tools.
This allows us to open new applications, such as palletizing. Yes, it’s a vacuum gripper, but we don’t sell components, we’re looking at applications to try to bring that value to the end user.
For machine tending, we already do that with our Adaptive Grippers, but machine tending with a 2D shape, it’s kind of difficult now with our solutions. So it opens up that kind of stuff, as well as packaging. These products open up new applications for us and our customers.
RBR: You also announced the Sanding Kit. What was it about that particular application that led the team to create this option?
Jobin: It started about four years ago, a guy called me and said, ‘I’m in China and they have a huge problem [with sanding] – they do it by hand and are not able to find people.’ At the time we didn’t have the technology in order to do it, but since then we’ve been able to accomplish the task.
Another example – there’s a small factory doing coffins – they are 15 people, and they are not able to hire people. They need to sand the coffins, they need to put seven to 10 layers of varnish between each layer, and then polish and sand. They need to polish with different compounds and they are not able to find the people to do it.
RBR: We’ve noticed that a lot of companies are teaming up with other companies and presenting to the customer base an application or solution, rather than saying, ‘You’ve got to build a gripper, then you go find an arm, then you go and build this.’ Do you see the same thing?
Jobin: The end user needs to have a solution that is uniform and seamless to them. In our case, we have different tools, and of course we don’t do the cobot arm, and that’s not a goal for us. There are plenty of different cobot manufacturers. At the end, we want to have partners, distributors, and integrators that could provide the final solution to the end user with the right tools.
That’s why we think our position is unique right now with sensors such as forced torque sensing and vision and the grippers and the software over it. We can come to the end user with complete solutions, of course with the end-of-arm tooling associated with that.
RBR: Are you seeing cobot adoption by small and midsize companies, or are larger companies adding them to the mix of larger industrial robots?
Jobin: I’m seeing both. If I come back to the early days of cobots, a lot of the people thought the cobots were only for the small and medium enterprises. Maybe it was because in the 1960s and 1970s larger companies were really aligned with industrial robots, and a lot of people thought that cobots would be there only for the small companies.
What we see right now is both – we see huge companies calling us because they think and they believe that the ease of use, easier deployment, is beneficial to them. But at the same time, we see small companies, with 10 to 20 people, doing great that purchase their first robot. They are able to automate and use that manpower somewhere else in their facility. So we see both at this time.
RBR: Who is your most important customer?
Jobin: We talk to a lot of end users but we never sell to them. Our sales channel goes directly through distributors and system integrators. Nine years ago, we used to sell 95% in research and 5% to companies, nowadays it’s completely opposite. We don’t sell much on the research side, and that’s on purpose. We really aligned with cobots and with the manufacturing process.
Our customers are in the automotive industry – not much in Tier 1, but more Tier 2 and Tier 3. Then we also have aerospace customers, and then the general industry – making parts like steel bearings, machine shops, that kind of stuff – some electronics, testing equipment, etc.
Bringing back manufacturing
RBR: Do you think robots and robotics can help bring manufacturing back from China, Mexico, and other locations, where they shipped out because they wanted to utilize cheaper labor?
Jobin: For me, this is a way to bring back the manufacturers to North America. It’s not just the U.S. – I have the same concern in Canada. We have a lot of resources and natural resources, but we’re losing our manufacturing companies because we’re not efficient enough and not able to find people in order to do better.
My feeling is that by making those robots easy enough, we can do this. The people who were doing the manual job have a gift – they have this experience. For example, let’s take polishing – they know how to do it – those people should be the ones taking care of the robots and transferring their know-how to the machines, and making sure to do the inspections at the end. Meanwhile, they can do more advanced or more difficult tasks, because the robots are not able to do everything. Robots would be able to polish simple parts, but for the more difficult parts, we would still need those people.
RBR: There have been a lot of high-profile robot companies that haven’t succeeded, yet you’ve been around for 10 years, and in the robot world, 10 years seems like 100. With the amount of advances in technology, what is it that Robotiq is doing that generates success and growth? Was it the pivot from industrial into the cobots, or is there something else that drove the growth?
Jobin: I think it’s keeping the end user always in the loop. We don’t sell directly to them, but the end user is the one who will use it. We need to talk to them and understand the pain in their application as much as possible. Being able to quickly react to the business and learn from our failures, because we did fail a lot. We have several cases where we launched a product and it didn’t work. It happened, but we need to understand and learn from that.
RBR: Are you optimistic about the future of cobots, because there still seems to be some push-back, especially from some of the industrial robot companies.
Jobin: I don’t believe that they think the cobots are going to go anywhere compared to the sales they get from some of the larger ones. They bring up the downsides of cobots. My feeling is that at some point, there would be no difference between one and the other. We would just call them robots.
I think industrial robots will become easier to use, and maybe safer, and the cobots will improve on cycle time, speed, and become more durable. At some point, there’s a chance that there would be no difference between this and that. The end user, usually they don’t care about cobots vs. robots, they just want to install something that will solve their problem.