The latest Robots are Friendly

We all know what a robot is. But then it really does depend on whether you immediately think of them in ‘sci-fi’ films, or paint spray booths, or welding on automotive production lines, or stacking in automated warehouses. These have been the big applications, in big automated factories, with around 240,000 robots sold last year. The article below was for a column published in the November issue of South African Instrumentation & Control, see a digital copy on

The emergence of the cobot supplier

However, there is a new breed of robot now: collaborative robots, or cobots, have only really emerged as practical devices in the current decade. A cobot is a robot that is intended physically to interact with humans in a shared workspace, so the special pens and protective light curtains around the robot operating area are gone. The cobot is designed to work alongside a human operator, typically maybe lifting the heavier items involved in electronic device assembly operations: it has smooth surfaces with no sharp edges, and protected joints, so a human working alongside cannot trap their fingers, plus it stops at the slightest external touch.

Additionally, the cobot is flexible, it can be trained (taught) by the assembly operator, by guiding its arms and grippers to show it what to do. Currently the cobot market is around 5% of the total, $100 m last year. These robots are lower in cost, say $24,000 each, but are aimed at the small to medium sized companies that account for 70% of global manufacturing, where flexibility is essential. New international standards for their safe design and use are emerging, and there are many suppliers, as the market is forecast to be $1Bn by 2020.

ABB’s YuMi


One such product is the ABB YuMi (‘you-me’) desk-top robot: a dual-arm small parts assembly robot that has flexible hands, incorporates parts feeding systems, camera-based part location and automated control: yet it has twice the reach and more strength than an operator. It can collaborate, side-by-side (or across the bench), with humans in a normal manufacturing environment, enabling companies to get the best of both humans and robots, working together.

In April, the ABB YuMi was recognised for outstanding achievements in commercialising innovative robot technology with the prestigious Invention and Entrepreneurship Award at the Automatica trade fair in Munich. There followed a Golden Finger award as ‘one of the best industrial robots of 2016’ at the China International Robot Show in Shanghai. One out of every four robots sold today is sold in China, which is the world’s leading robotics growth market: 68 000 units were sold there in 2015, 17% up on 2014.

YuMi was specifically designed to help consumer electronics meet the challenges produced by the need for customised personal electronics products, by enabling operators and cobots to share tasks, with easy training when the task changes. The YuMi appears to be targeted at the assembly operations common with electronic equipment, significantly in Southeast Asia.

Universal Robots – another successful start-up.

Universal Robots (UR) was formed in Odense, Denmark in 2005, with the goal of making robot technology accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises. It introduced its first cobot in 2008, and particularly focused on food industry applications, with 3,5 and 10 kg payload cobots. Their average payback period of 195 days for customers is claimed as the fastest in the industry.

Recently its cobot arms have been awarded certification for use in clean room applications, so UR robots can now be used in areas where purity and hygiene – such as particle emission, easy-to-clean surfaces and extreme reliability – are decisive criteria for precise automation processes. This opens up more applications in the food industry, in the production of microchips and semiconductors, and in the electrical and optoelectronic industries.

At the end of 2014, more than 3500 UR robots were installed worldwide: currently they claim the figure is 6000 – annual sales maybe growing x2,5 in just over a year. Mercedes-Benz has replaced old robots with humans on some lines, to better manage customised products. They are moving to having production workers guiding a part automatic robot. Scientists at MIT, working with BMW, have found that robot-human teams can be about 85% more productive than either of them, alone. Subsequently Universal Robots were rated #25 on the MIT Technology Review’s list of the world’s 50 smartest companies: Teradyne Inc then acquired UR for $285 m in 2015.

New President at Universal Robots

Following their recent (2015) acquisition of Universal Robots A/S of Denmark for US $285m, Teradyne Inc has announced the appointment of a new President to steer the company’s future, leading the growing market for collaborative robots (Cobots). They have named Jürgen von Hollen as President with immediate effect. Von Hollen was most recently the Executive President of the Engineering Solutions Division of Bilfinger SE, which includes their Automation and Controls business in Mannheim, Germany: they are a leading international engineering and services company. In his rôle at Bilfinger, he was responsible for a global staff of nearly 10,000 and annual sales in excess of Euro1billion.

“We’re delighted to have Jürgen leading Universal Robots through this period of explosive growth,” said Teradyne CEO Mark Jagiela. “Jürgen’s experience developing and leading global teams serving a broad range of industrial and commercial customers is tremendously important as we drive the adoption of easy to use, safe, and economical UR Cobots across the globe.”

unnamed“I am excited to join Universal Robots as they work to fundamentally reshape automation across the global economy,” said von Hollen. “The opportunity to lead and expand a high powered organization like UR with such a long term, high growth outlook is very rare and I look forward to working with our worldwide distributors, partners, and customers in the days ahead to realize the full potential of collaborative robots.”

Von Hollen began his career with Daimler-Benz aerospace and held senior management roles at Daimler-Chrysler Services, Deutsche Telecom and Pentair. He will now be based in Odense, Denmark.

Background to UR

Universal Robots is the result of many years of intensive research at Denmark’s successful robot cluster, which is located in Odense, Denmark. The company was co-founded in 2005 by the company’s CTO, Esben Østergaard, who wanted to make robot technology accessible to all by developing small, user-friendly, reasonably priced, flexible industrial robots that are safe to work with and on their own can be used to streamline processes in the industry.

The product portfolio includes the three collaborative robots UR3, UR5 and UR10 named after their payload in kilos. Since the first UR robot launched in December 2008, the company has experienced considerable growth with the user-friendly robots now sold in more than 50 countries worldwide. At just 195 days, the average payback period for UR robots is the fastest in the industry.

The company, now a part of Boston-based Teradyne Inc, is headquartered in Odense and has subsidiaries and regional offices in the USA, Spain, Germany, Singapore, Czech Republic, India, and China. Universal Robots has more than 300 employees worldwide.

Teradyne Inc

Listed on the NYSE, Teradyne is a leading supplier of automation equipment for test and industrial applications. Teradyne Automatic Test Equipment (ATE) is used to test semiconductors, wireless products, data storage and complex electronic systems, which serve consumer, communications, industrial and government customers. Industrial Automation products include Collaborative Robots used by global manufacturing and light industrial customers to improve quality and increase manufacturing efficiency. In 2015, Teradyne had revenue of $1.64 billion and currently employs approximately 4,200 people worldwide.

Robotic welders use cables from igus

igus advise that sales of their ‘readycable‘ for use on the welding arms of robotic welders are booming! Such robotic welding systems are now widely used in large scale automated manufacturing facilities, particularly in the automotive industry.  Faced with cost-down pressures from their customers, small metalworking job shops are now starting to consider implementing automation.  When the operating costs of robotic welding are compared to manual welding the results are clearly in favour of the robot.  Additional benefits of automating are increased productivity, more consistent welded joints and improved quality.

Cyber-Weld, a Warwickshire based provider of robotic welding solutions, provides a simple cost analysis to its potential customers.  Using manual welding, the overhead burdened cost is around GBP35k per annum for a single shift, with an average “Arc On” time of 25%.  The average robot “Arc On” time is 75%, three times that of a manual welder, resulting in an additional 200% production capability.  With an entry level robot and operator costs of GBP17.5k, the payback time is less than 12 months.

Potential users do have concerns though.  How easy are they to program?  Where to find trained staff to operate them?  How reliable are the robots?

Choosing the right supplier – as a partner

When choosing a partner, reputation should always be the first consideration.  A reliable partner must provide advice on which robot to select and be able to provide a full turn-key solution with support from the initial inquiry through to the installation.  Prompt delivery, machine commissioning, employee training, trouble shooting, repair and offering regular system overhauls are other key factors.  Look for a company that is a strategic partner for one or more of the leading robot manufacturers.

unnamed (1)

Justin Leonard of igus receives the 10,000th order for readycable, from Fraser Reid, MD of Cyber-Weld

Cyber-Weld regularly uses igus as a supplier and partner for cable assemblies on their robotic welding machines for the same reasons and has bought over 100 readycable drive cables.  Cyber-Weld’s latest purchase marked a milestone for igus; being the 10,000th order for the product series.  These highly flexible cables provide power and signals to the robotic head, grippers or other attachments and are usually mounted externally to the robotic arm.  Particularly on a 6-axis robot, this cable is subject to a great deal of rigorous movement, which can lead to premature failure if incorrectly specified.

“We expect the cables to outlive the mission time of the installed robotic system, which is approximately 10 to 15 years,” stated Mike Jones, General Manager, of Cyber-Weld.  “igus is always helpful and is happy to come onsite to look at our requirements, which is a big plus factor for us.  A local supplier with a good reputation, igus also helps us shorten our lead-times.”

Reliable, tested cables

The readycable assembled drive cables series has bending radius from 7.5 x od.  Harnessed cables are tested in igus e-chain cable carriers through many millions of cycles. There is a choice of servo cables, signal cables and feeder cables with a total of seven cable quality levels for the same electrical requirement, offering an affordable and durable solution for all applications.  The readycable assembled drive cables also have a number of certifications and regulatory conformities including UL, CSA, CE Desina.  These extremely reliable cables are designed for high stress applications and are also available with flame and oil resistance.

It is no contradiction to say that good cables cost less.  Fast delivery throughout the world is a significant purchase criterion, and igus can provide that with a presence and stock in more than 40 countries. This saves time, money, part storage capacity and is applicable to 1,040 igus cable types, which can be ordered without any minimum quantity purchases or surcharges.

In the igus test facility in Cologne, numerous parallel tests are conducted under the most severe conditions. Presently more than 2 billion double strokes and 1.4 million electrical tests are carried out per year, with the test results stored in an extensive data-base, providing precise and reliable data about actual service life. The test data for e-chain, cables, and also for ready-assembled systems, are so extensive that igus has secured a functional guarantee for its variety of e-chain systems based on the particular application.

The igus reputation appreciated by Cyber-Weld comes from this extensive testing and more than 25-years of industry experience in continuous-flex cable.  Further information and the on-line readycable product finder can be found on the igus website, including searches by machine producer and cable type.

[The names readycable and e-chain are trademarks of igus]

ABB claims increased profits in a challenging 2015

Ulrich Spiesshofer

Ulrich Spiesshofer

There has been very little news of orders, applications or new products from the Process Automation side of ABB over the last six months, basically since the acquisition of the CGM wide screen display business last August. So it was reassuring to read the 2015 full year results, published this month, where CEO Ulrich Speisshofer advises that orders and revenues were steady, on a constant currency basis, in the face of adverse macro-economic and geo-political developments: it was just that the strength of the US Dollar compared to the prior year resulted in a negative translation impact into the final figures, of around 9%.

Because of productivity improvements, and accelerated cost reduction programmes, plus a successful turnaround of the Power Systems business, the operational EBITA margin improved 60 points to 11.8%, and free cash flow generation improved 16% (or 6% in USD) to $3Bn. The strategic review of the Power Grids business is on track for completion in 2016. Through 2015, ABB returned $3.2Bn to shareholders, and now proposes another dividend increase this year, the 7th year running.

Highlights and detail

Speisshofer mentioned particularly the launch of the YuMi collaborative robot, and their targeting on food and beverage markets and Africa as very successful. Declines in orders at Process Automation and Discrete Automation/Motion were offset by growth from Power Systems and Power Products – Process Automation suffered from a marked decrease in the discretionary spending from oil and gas markets in Q4 2015. However one major order received was for monitoring, control and security of the 1850km Trans-Anatolian pipeline, which will bring gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. The strategic review of the Power Grids business is on track for completion in 2016.

Geographically orders grew by 7% in Europe, reflecting steady demand from Germany, and major growth in Sweden and Turkey. While the Americas were steady, China showed a double digit decline, causing a fall in the total Asia plus MEA territory. Large orders (above $15m) grew 10% (down 5% in USD terms) which offset the base order decline of 3% (which was 14% in USD).

…..HVDC links are growing

L_The+Gotland+HR pic smallABB installed the World’s first HVDC power transmission link from Vastervik to Ygne on the island of Gotland, in the Baltic, in 1954. Upgraded through the years, this link now operates at 150kV, and can transmit 320MW of power over 100km under the sea, providing electric power to the 58,000 residents. In December the operator, Vattenfall Eldistribution, awarded ABB a new $22m contract for further enhancements that will enable greater amounts of the wind power now generated on the island to be returned to the mainland: a state-of-the-art MACH control and protection system will be installed to incorporate advanced fault registration and remote control functions. Having pioneered this technology 60 years ago, ABB has supplied 110 similar projects world-wide, with a capacity total of 120,000 MW – this represents around half the global installed capacity for this technology.

See the pdf giving the ABB review of the development of HVDC power technology:

(c) Nick Denbow 2016


Rockwell expands in conveying systems

Rockwell Automation is to purchase MagneMotion, a US-based manufacturer of intelligent conveying systems. MagneMotion systems are used across a broad range of industrial applications including automotive and general assembly, packaging and materials handling. This acquisition will complement the recently acquired iTrak technology from Jacobs Automation, to create the broadest portfolio of independent ‘cart’ solutions in this emerging technology area.

“This acquisition continues our strategy to build a portfolio of smart manufacturing technologies that brings next generation performance to our customers today,” said Marco Wishart, vp and gm of the Rockwell Automation motion control business. “MagneMotion expands our existing capabilities in independent cart technology. Our recent acquisition of Jacobs Automation and its iTrak technology is complementary to MagneMotion’s portfolio. We see a future where the transportation of products within the factory, whether inside of a particular machine or between machines, will be fully controlled to optimise the productivity and flexibility of the entire process.”

“This deal is the logical next step in the evolution of our business, and a welcome development for MagneMotion,” said Todd Weber, president and CEO of MagneMotion. “The leading position of Rockwell Automation in plant-wide controls and industrial automation gives us the best opportunity to introduce this technology to customers. As the market continues to realize the benefits of applying independent cart technology, the global Rockwell organisation will be a tremendous asset.”

MagneMotion is based in Devens, Massachusetts.

Cooperation, collaboration and flexibility, robotically

Festo has announced three new additions to its ‘inspired by nature’ range; BionicANTS, eMotionButterflies and the FlexShapeGripper. The latest creations from Festo’s Bionic Learning Network play towards the philosophy of Industry 4.0.  This year’s approach has been to investigate ways to “join the network”, to review the connectivity in production through communication.

The BionicANTs and eMotionButterflies illustrate how through combining individual systems, a single system of networked communications can be created. In addition, the FlexShapeGripper demonstrates how a flexible and adaptable gripping mechanism, which is based on a reptile’s natural feeding habit, can be used across a wide range of applications.


FTO3617 - BionicAntsThe BionicANTs project focuses on cooperation and looks at how ants autonomously work together for one common solution.  For the BionicANTs, Festo’s engineers have not only taken the delicate anatomy of the natural ant as a role model. For the first time, the cooperative behaviour of the creatures has also been transferred to the world of technology using complex control algorithms.

“Like their natural role models, the BionicANTs work together under clear rules,” explains Dr.-Ing. Heinrich Frontzek, Head of Corporate Communication and Future Concepts at Festo. “They communicate with each other and coordinate both their actions and movements. Each ant makes its decisions autonomously, but in doing so is always secondary to the common objective and thereby plays its part towards solving the complex task at hand.”

The cooperative behaviour of ants provides interesting approaches for the factory of tomorrow. Future production systems will be founded on intelligent components, which adapt flexibly to different production scenarios and thus take on tasks from a higher control level.


FTO3617 - FlexShapeGripperGripping applications have always played a key role in production. In cooperation with University of Oslo, Festo is now presenting a gripper whose working principle is derived from the tongue of a chameleon.

The FlexShapeGripper can pick up, gather and put down several objects with the widest range of shapes in one procedure, without the need for manual conversion. The unique ability to adapt to many different shapes is made possible by its water-filled silicone cap, which wraps itself around any item being picked up in a flexible and form-fitting manner.

“We see the FlexShapeGripper being used in any facility where multiple objects with a range of different shapes are handled at the same time. For example within the robotics sector, for assembly tasks or when handling small parts,” commented Frontzek.


FTO3617 - EmotionButterfliesFesto’s eMotionButterflies have been developed to solve complex issues such as functional integration, ultra-lightweight construction and communication between individual systems that are networked and optimised on a real-time basis. The bionic butterflies show the extent to which the virtual and real world can work together.

Coordination between the individual flying objects is possible due to a well-networked external guidance and monitoring system. The communication and sensor technology used, which creates an indoor GPS system, enables the butterflies to display collective behaviour without any danger of collision.

The combination of integrated electronics and external camera technology, used with a host computer, ensures process stability through an intelligent guidance and monitoring system.  This technology opens up possibilities for enhanced safety of applications in an industrial environment.

To download further information about BionicANTS, FlexShapeGripper and eMotionButterflies, visit

Fanuc increases robot capacity

FANUC today announced the purchase of 695,000 square meters of land in Japan to increase production capacities for the installation of new CNCs, servo motors and servo amplifiers, as Europe’s demand for robots grows. Under the purchase agreement FANUC is purchasing land from the “Mibu-hanyuda Industrial Park,” with the first phase beginning in September 2015.

FANUC will also expand its laboratories situated in the Headquarters site including the construction of four new factories. With this expansion, testing equipment will be introduced to complement FANUC‘s expert knowledge, to continue to create new and innovative products.

Chris Sumner, vice president, FANUC Europe said: “One of the major reasons behind the increase in our production capacity at FANUC, is the high demand we’ve seen from European manufacturers. As factories look to implement more automation technologies within their manufacturing processes, many have realised the cost-saving potential and increased rate of production that this brings to their businesses. We’ve seen this reflected in our orders over the last twelve months, in the UK in particular we have seen orders increase across the board by over 50 per cent.”

Sensors guide tractors accurately

Peterborough based Garford Farm Machinery designs and manufactures advanced environmentally sustainable agricultural equipment to help large scale weed control and crop cultivation farming problems worldwide. Its ‘Robocrop’ range, covering weeding, hoeing or spraying, employs a specially developed precision guided vision system that uses real-time digital image analysis in conjunction with a hydraulic servo ‘sideshift’ assembly that laterally positions various multiple tools  exactly on or within the crop rows as the tractor mounted equipment is driven forwards.

The precision guided tools are used for mechanical weed control; to remove individual unwanted plants, hoe between rows of plants, or spray rows of plants – with impressive lateral positional accuracies of better than 10 mm at average tractor speeds of 12 km/hr.

Variohm EuroSensor provides the durable precision linear and rotary sensors for use in these extreme environmental and physical conditions, for tractor steering angle and lateral position feedback for the plant rows. To complete the package of sensors on the Robocrop, Variohm also supplies combined pressure and temperature sensors for hydraulic system monitoring.

The In-Row Weeder

Robocrop_Inrow WeederThe Robocrop InRow Weeder is the latest in the Garford range and utilises the tried and tested video image analysis technique to locate crop plants through pixel and colour recognition and then use this information to control individual rotating weeding discs which actually hoe the area between the plants (inter-row) or in line with the plants (inter-plant), eradicating competing weeds but leaving crops intact. The InRow Weeder features multiple individual discs which operate across several crop rows with a maximum width of six metres. The rotation of each disc is synchronised with the forward speed of the tractor and the plant positional information from an imaging camera which can cover a two metre width. Each weeding disc is coupled to a hydraulic motor, driven via a proportional valve controlled by the cab mounted Robocrop computer, which includes an HMI display to select modes and display operational information.

The sensors supplied to Garford are part of a comprehensive range of sensor technologies that Variohm EuroSensor designs, manufactures or sources for linear and rotary position, load, force and vibration measurement in demanding applications throughout industry, agriculture, construction, autosports and research.


Robotic automation in low volume processes

A recent survey carried out on behalf of ABB Robotics UK reveals that many UK manufacturers have yet to be convinced about the suitability of robotic automation for low volume or bespoke production processes.

Of the 221 companies that responded to the survey, 134 are not currently using robots. When asked to specify their reasons, 27% of these respondents identified themselves as operating low volume or bespoke processes which they did not deem as suitable for robotic automation.

“The unfortunate flipside of the success of robotic automation in the automotive industry is that it has led to a popular belief that robots are only suitable for mass production processes,” says Mike Wilson, General Industry Sales and Marketing Manager for ABB’s UK Robotics business. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. Developments in robotic technology have made robots more flexible than ever, enabling them to be quickly switched between completely different products and processes.”

“There is no reason why the same flexibility and agility which enables packaging producers to use the same robots to handle dozens of differently sized and shaped products cannot be readily applied to producing engineered products,” adds Wilson. “While producing an engineered product may be a world away from handling a package, the underlying principle is the same – namely that a robot offers a highly flexible and efficient means of handling different processes and / or products, especially when compared to fixed-purpose machinery.”

One example of this is agricultural machinery producer, Shelbourne Reynolds. The Suffolk-based company originally installed a robotic welding cell to handle the welding operations involved in the production of low volume articulated hedge cutting tractor attachments. In order to maximise its investment, the company then decided to expand the duties handled by the cell to include working on other products, freeing up manual workers to handle other manufacturing tasks on other product lines.

Convincing more UK manufacturers to embrace automation is one of the key recommendations of a new report by the All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group (APMG). Prepared with the help of leading figures in industry, including representatives from companies, institutions and Government, ‘Making Good: A study of culture and competitiveness in UK manufacturing’ addresses the problems currently impeding the progress of UK manufacturing companies, including a reluctance to automate.

“One of the key findings of the report is that the cost-conscious, short-term outlook of British companies has prevented them from seeing the bigger picture when it comes to automation,” says Wilson. “A fixation on the capital outlay cost has meant that the longer term cost benefits of using automation to deliver flexible manufacturing, where the same line can be used to produce multiple products, are ignored.”

To help companies to assess the scope for introducing robotic automation into their processes, ABB is offering a free, no-obligation ‘Productivity & Efficiency Appraisal’ service. Lasting half a day, the appraisal includes a visit by an ABB engineer who will help to spot potential areas where robots could help deliver productivity and efficiency savings. For more information, or to book an appraisal, email or call 01908 350300 ref. ‘Free appraisal’.

You can also now quickly estimate the potential return on investment in robotic automation using ABB’s online Return on Investment calculator tool. To try the calculator, please visit

Robots on display at INNOROBO in Lyon

Bruno Bonnell

Bruno Bonnell

Exhibitions showing the latest in robot and automation developments are popular around the world, and attract public as well as industrial user interest, so there is always a big audience. In Europe, and particularly in France, the major exhibition and conference is InnoRobo, typically attracting around 15,000 visitors every March to Lyon, the second largest city in France, and capital of the south central Rhône-Alpes region. Founded four years ago, InnoRobo was initially dedicated to service robotics, rather than automated production machines. Bruno Bonnell, president of Syrobo, the French association for robotics companies, commented that four years ago the show had prototypes only, with no ‘live’ machines available from production. Last year the synergy between service robots and industrial robotics was the main discussion point, and ‘cobotics’ had emerged – the science of human-robotic collaboration. At the 2014 show, from 18-20 March, the scene was totally reversed, with every stand demonstrating working production models, and the prime discussion point was human-machine collaboration. Most robots displayed smooth moulded contours, with custom plastic mouldings to cover joints and motors, presumably formed from 3D printed moulds, since the maximum production runs discussed were around 1000. The smaller humanoid robots developed first, like the Nao, have grown bigger with second generation units getting taller, and even some full sized – in height: some were more expensive than others.

Business Aspects

Business investment, start-ups and opportunities were at the front of everyone’s mind. InnoRobo last year launched a call for start-up companies to present their ideas to a jury of high tech investors, and obtain a slot at the conference to pitch to a wider audience. This was repeated in 2014, and there seemed to be a wide range of Government, Regional, entrepreneurial and Stock market funds available to the right ideas.

NAO robots from Aldebaran apparently developing jealousy: the orange robot had been attracting too much praise for recognizing and naming the animal pictures shown on flash cards – albeit presented slowly

NAO robots from Aldebaran apparently developing jealousy: the orange robot had been attracting too much praise for recognizing and naming the animal pictures shown on flash cards – albeit presented slowly

Undoubtedly a lot of this finance is being channelled into research projects, typically at Universities, but many times this work is undertaken in health or medical departments, or others, like agriculture, where robot software engineers are becoming more acceptable as staff members. Plus the producers of the robots, like the Nao from Aldebaran in France, or the ICub robot from IIT in Italy, find these University studies provide the major market for many hundreds of production robots. Typically these researchers can pool the available software developed in many centres, to enable their next research step.

Research at Lyon

Within the French National Institute of Health and Medical research, the robot software development team has been working since 2008, and has now seven people working on human-robot interaction. They won the funding to acquire the ICub robot based on this work proposal, and have developed eye and eyelid movements to give the right social signals. Other groups co-operating on similar tasks (across Spain, Italy, Britain, Scandinavia and Switzerland) have been developing such aspects as mouth and lip movement, with the same objective, and the ICub variants developed have had success in interfacing with children with learning difficulties. As ever, to get on in this world, you need to brush up on your interpersonal skills, and this is needed for robots too.

Encouraging European robotics

The potential for the robotics industry makes it a prime target for development investment by Governments, as a classic high tech industry creating many high-tech jobs. Obvious in Lyon were the efforts from the French and German Regional Governments, and from the European Commission. Regional clusters of expertise, maybe in different aspects of the technology, were claimed for Rhône-Alpes, Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrénées, and Bavaria/Munich. Eric Bourguignon of Bayfor Munich claimed to be project managing many EU funded robot projects, with international collaborations, and even providing travel grants for local industry to visit international partners. In France there has been specific robotic expertise developed by the nuclear industry, for example by CEA in the south, which is also applied by Areva in their nuclear plants. Philippe Bidaud of GdR-Robotique, the French co-ordinating body for robotics research in Government institutions, also mentioned the use by CNRS, the French Railways, of drones, on civil engineering survey work, for example monitoring lines across bridges and other structures from the air. Flying at 150m, these drones can monitor rail line positioning to within 2mm.

Commercial investment

Frank Tobe, based in California, is the publisher of the website, which identifies and provides data on all companies working in the robotics market. Tobe is also the co-founder and research analyst for Robo-Stox LLC, the first benchmark index to track the global robotics and automation market, which has the aim of providing investment products that target these sectors. He arrived at InnoRobo in Lyon straight from Modex, a material handling exhibition in Atlanta, where he had been impressed by the warehousing systems developed by Amazon following their acquisition of Kiva Technologies in April 2012.

From his website the distribution of current robot commercial companies can be assessed, which actually shows how these are mainly concentrated in Southern Germany within the European area, perhaps in contrast to the R&D activities presented throughout the conference from France. Tobe sees agriculture as the area where aspects of robotic technology will give the major benefits initially, but points to companies like Apple, Amazon and Google who are investing heavily into the technologies. Vision systems and software are the major investment areas, followed by production engineering.

Examples quoted by Frank Tobe perhaps illustrate how the discrete automation systems are being changed to process automation systems using “cobotics”: there is now an automated pizza machine that will produce a hot pizza with a customer specified topping in 5 minutes, and a similar hamburger machine – and he praised Fanuc for having the first “dark” factory, totally unmanned, producing components from fully automated machinery. Fanuc attended the InnoRobo conference, and claimed 15000 robots active in France, from 15 separate integration partners.

European Fund

Bruno Bonnell, of Syrobo, is also a partner in Robolution Capital, a Paris based private equity fund (managed by Orkos Capital SAS) that will invest in innovative companies in the ‘fast growing’ service robotics market, mainly within Europe. The management of the fund sees potential in many European companies, and is not limited or restricted to France – although many of the team of the fund managers are French. The comments in the fund launch presentation, translated from the French, commented that “Today, 60 French laboratories are recognized worldwide for their service robotics, and Robolution Capital can create leverage to make France the California of Europe”.  The required funding target of Euro80m was achieved in March, with a 50/50 public private split: the public money coming from Bank Bpi in France, insurer AG2R-La Mondiale, Orange, EdF and Thales. The first investments, of between Euro300k and Euro5m, are expected to be made by the Summer of 2014.

Miscellany at Innorobo in Lyon:

Robo-Stox companiesRobo-Stox logo

The Robo-Stox portfolio by value is 36% made up of US companies, and 24% from Japan: 6.4% come from each of Germany and Taiwan, 5.1% Switzerland and 3.9% from the UK: France has 2.6% along with Sweden, Israel, Netherlands and Canada. Of the companies allocated 2.35% of the weight of the portfolio each, the industrial automation names are ABB, Fanuc, Keyence, Kuka, Omron, Rockwell, and Yaskawa. Other companies that are allocated just under 1% each include Brooks, Flir, Jenoptik, Mitsubishi, NI, Renishaw, Schneider, Siemens and Yokogawa.

The Čapek Prize

Prof. Inoue

Prof. Inoue

An evening reception held in the sumptuous ballroom of the Lyon Town Hall, included the presentation by the InnoRobo organizers of the Čapek Prize to Prof Hirochika Inoue of the University of Tokyo, in recognition of his work on the development of robot-human collaboration. As Prof Inoue commented, a collaborative robot possibly becomes corroborative to a Japanese speaker, so the end result has been simplified to the word “Cobot”, for a co-operative, service robot. While this signals a move of the image of the robot away from that of the classic aggressive machine with sharp humanoid features, the silver statue presented in recognition of the prize for Prof Inoue’s work showed a return to the old image of a warrior robot – the education needs to continue!

The InnoRobo Exhibits

"Remote presence" via an AWAbot

“Remote presence” via an AWAbot

As might have been expected, the show aisles were quite crowded with various different styles of robot, some walking, some automated delivery systems, alongside the visitors. From France, telepresence technology (created by Bruno Bonnell in 2011) was in evidence with Beam robots strolling around. A user of such a telepresence robot guides a wheeled robot remotely, via the internet, and communicates with the remote environment by internet quality speech: the picture of the remote person, from his webcam, is shown on the screen held at eye level, and can be seen by people in front of the robot. While the person driving the robot can see in front of him, inevitably people to the side and behind are in danger of being knocked around, which caused some broken glasses from drinks tables at one evening reception, gate-crashed by the robots! Actually, these robots did seem to spend most of their time talking to one another, maybe because everyone else avoided their attention. Maybe the design needs more attention in the interpersonal skills area, which is what ‘cobotics’ is all about!

That Rubik cube!

Have you managed to solve how to do it yet? At the “Big Bang” Fair in Birmingham, UK, an automated system based on a Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone analyzed the cube and instructed four robotic hands to do the manipulations. These were controlled by eight Lego Mindstorm EV3 bricks – all these intelligent devices are equipped with ARM processors, and they completed the task in a record 3.25 seconds. The “robot” system was created by Mike Dobson and David Gilday, who seem to be specialists in the Rubik cube. The Big Bang Fair is designed to encourage UK school children to take up science, technology, engineering or maths careers.