Brave New Robot World

When Is a Robotic-Based Solution More Practical Than Other Automation Alternatives?

By Joe Feeley

During Automate 2013 in Chicago, I ran into Pete Squires, vice president of Schneider Packaging Equipment at his booth.

With robots a big topic of discussion in a recent 60 Minutes segment, and Schneider exhibiting some of its robotic handling solutions, we talked about the state of robotic projects, particularly for companies making "first contact."

"The fear factor is dropping a lot," Squires said. "We have more people telling us what they want done, and sometimes we'll realize — and tell them — that a non-robotic solution would be less costly and do the job too. But they'll say ‘No, no I want it to be robotic-based.' So, we quote them a robotic system."

Squires said that though his company prefers and uses Rockwell Automation controls products — and in some cases, he won't supply anything else — more potential customers are less concerned about his company's choice of automation and are quite prepared to leave to them as to how to meet that customer's performance requirements. "It's much different than it was 10 years ago," he observed.

Noting that some users are less internally capable regarding automation issues, Squires said, "I've always found it's more important to find a good integrator you can trust than the parts you choose."

Down the aisle a piece I found the Rethink Robotics exhibit, which revolved around Baxter, the company's new, two-arm, somewhat-human-acting — the HMI sports big blue eyes that follow you around — robot that needs no special integration or programming. Baxter was a featured player in the 60 Minutes piece that upset many in the robot biz who felt it slammed them as being job killers.

Baxter was championed by company chairman and CTO Rodney Brooks, who invented iRobots' Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner that dogs love to bite.

Alex Goodwin, director of product management, demoed Baxter's easy-teach procedure for getting the robot to, in this case, find an object on a moving conveyor, pick it up and place it somewhere else. You train it by manually moving it through the required motions.

It's aimed at repetitive, mundane tasks that could reshore jobs. The robots take the mundane, while people take the more-skilled jobs that accompany them back. That's the theory, anyway.

Goodwin pointed to its applicability to eventually do high-precision tasks that humans struggle with. They currently offer only two end-of-arm tools: an electric parallel gripper and a vacuum cup gripper. Goodwin says they know they have to roll out more tool variety in due time.

Precision work wasn't what a number of people who watched the demo were after. Many of their comments made it pretty clear they were out to cut headcount, having little good to say about their factory workers.

Therein lies the conflict, but more about that another time.