With a great deal of the popular press discussing the coming robot revolution, my colleagues Mehmet Kaya, Dan Viner and I attended the Automate show at McCormick Place last week in Chicago. This event hosts more than 400 exhibitors showcasing a wide range of technologies designed, developed and sold to help improve productivity, quality and cost across the full spectrum of goods and services we use.
As technologists and product developers, Cambridge Consultants regularly undertakes challenging robotics and automation projects, from high-density cellular networks to control robot hives in distribution centres to robots which can precision target plants with precise application of nutrients, herbicides or pesticides. We are very interested in new and challenging applications where robotics and automation can positively disrupt industry sectors and so we are keen to stay abreast of developments in machine learning, control theory, cobotics (collaborative-robotics) and very low cost systems.
Some of our highlights from the show include:
End of Arm Tooling (End Effectors)
The numbers and types of EoAT’s has expanded considerably to suit custom needs in everything from palletizing to bin picking. EoAT’s designed for the movement of goods typically on hard or soft mechanical graspers, suction or combinations thereof but several vendors offered unique enhancements such as force/torque sensing modules (Robotiq), a cobotic gripper from Schunk and a start-up with a sophisticated force-sensing gripper (Robotic Materials, Inc.)
Un-structured bin picking; the ability of a robot system to manipulate diverse and randomly oriented parts from a bin, relies heavily on vision and machine learning. At Automate, it was evident that speed and performance are improving. Boston’s own Soft Robotics demonstrated a simple and clever cobotic application where the operator directs the EoAT’s grasp by designating the item and its orientation on a touch-screen. This system is quick and the pneumatic effector is impressive.
Warehousing and Logistics systems
Cambridge Consultants developed Ocado’s warehousing robot communications network and so we know a few things about these systems. Several systems were on display, from Locus to Fetch to Opex to Swisslog Logistics. None of these seem to be openly addressing the final step of filling the order bin and so it seems this ‘final mile’ challenge remains un-met.
Following the trend of IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), the automate show was replete with examples of connected devices ranging from condition monitoring sensors to fork lifts and cranes. This suggests that the data generated will eventually benefit from data analytics but underscores the value of Edge Intelligence; limiting the processing of large amounts of unremarkable ‘normal-state’ data.