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Rockwell Automation to add Otto Motors AMRs to its portfolio

Sept. 12, 2023
Autonomous mobile robots from Clearpath Robotics will join recent acquisitions from Plex, Fiix and Kalypso in Connected Enterprise portfolio

Rockwell Automation has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Clearpath Robotics, which was founded in 2009. The acquisition includes Otto Motors, a division of Clearpath launched in 2015 that makes autonomous robotics for industrial applications.

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are designed to create safer and more productive workplaces with autonomous material handling. Rockwell hopes the acquisition will boost its Connected Enterprise efforts.

Transporting parts and materials to assembly lines and between manufacturing cells can be complex and inefficient, often resulting in production bottlenecks. Autonomous production logistics could transform the workflow throughout a manufacturing plant, enabling reductions in cost and greater operational efficiency. In addition to AMRs, Otto Motors offers fleet-management and navigation software.

Combined with Rockwell’s partnerships in fixed robotic arms, its independent cart technology and programmable logic controllers (PLCs), Otto Motors’ AMR capabilities could create a material-handling portfolio with significant upside. The Clearpath acquisition will be funded by a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Rockwell’s investment in PTC and is expected to close in the first quarter of Rockwell’s 2024 fiscal year. Rockwell expects the acquisition to contribute a percentage point to its 2024 revenue growth.

“Rockwell and Clearpath together will simplify the difficult and labor-intensive task of moving materials and product through an orchestrated and safe system to optimize operations throughout the entire manufacturing facility,” said Blake Moret, chairman and CEO, Rockwell Automation. “The combination of autonomous robots and PLC-based line control has long been a dream of plant managers in industries as diverse as automotive and consumer packaged goods. With Clearpath, Rockwell is uniquely positioned to make that dream a reality across virtually all discrete and hybrid verticals, optimizing planning, operations and the workforce.”

Rockwell has pieced together strategic acquisitions over the past few years designed to unite the Connected Enterprise. Otto AMRs join Plex and Fiix software-as-a-service (SaaS) information-management applications and Kalypso’s production-logistics consulting practice in Rockwell’s network of information-based optimization.

“Industrial customers are under ever-increasing pressure to do more with less,” said Matt Rendall, co-founder and CEO of Clearpath. “Autonomous-production logistics is becoming a necessity to meet targets and stay competitive.”

Expanded ecosystems

Rockwell's acquisition of Clearpath is a sign that the industry is maturing, said Florian Pestoni, co-founder and CEO of InOrbit, a platform for robot operations that added the Otto 100 AMR to its Robot Space network in September. “So many roboticists have started their careers with Clearpath research robots, but it is the Otto Motors division offering commercial AMRs that likely motivated the acquisition,” noted Pestoni. “The market for material-handling robots has exploded in recent years, attracting more traditional and established companies. As Clearpath/Otto are part of the InOrbit Connect ecosystem, we have collaborated frequently with their top-notch team, from collaborative open-source projects to combining forces in order to address large customers' needs, and look forward to continuing to do that as they join the larger Rockwell Automation.”

Visitors to InOrbit’s showroom in Mountain View, California, can see the Otto 100 working alongside robots and technology from other manufacturers, thanks in part to an open-source robot connector that allows users to connect Otto Fleet Manager to the InOrbit platform and bring cross-platform data into InOrbit for bi-directional operations including mission and incident management, along with consolidated, heterogeneous fleet analytics.

InOrbit’s collaborations with Otto Motors and Clearpath Robotics date back to 2022 when the two partnered on the development of a ROS2-to-VDA5050 connector. InOrbit’s approach to robotics and a desire to share a vision for an open and connected future have been closely aligned with Clearpath’s, which is one of the reasons Clearpath’s Jackal became one of the first real robots InOrbit purchased.

The InOrbit Robot Space is a combination product showcase/empathy lab/executive briefing center/community space/retail store to help demystify robots.

Ready to roll

Including the Otto Motors robots can open many new opportunities at Rockwell, explained Tobey Strauch, an independent principal industrial controls engineer in Fremont, California.

Expanding the portfolio meets a need to have more robotics in its base. “Rockwell already has a good relationship with Fanuc, but it doesn't have its own robots,” she noted. “Thus, adding robots to the base makes them a total automation company. It will broaden customers and make the board happy for the financial impact. Financially, Rockwell is being smart, because it's not six-axis robots; it's AMRs—a good investment due to warehousing applications still ramping up, based on the Amazon push to deliver things, anything, to the home or office, and to do it quickly.” AMR growth is projected at 30% over the next five years, added Strauch.

“Because manufacturing still has to get assemblies in between assembly lines, AMRs are a good industrial development area,” she said. “The technology is more advanced now than in the early 1990s, and Rockwell should be able to plug-and-play and tie it in with the PLC system, so it's a functional add-on to a Rockwell system that will integrate easily with the PLCs. Being more discrete, Rockwell is pivoting for its logistics customers and strategizing for the logistics market in order to capitalize on logistics customer needs.”

Integration-wise, it's not a big deal to go from common industrial protocol (CIP) to wireless communications for the AMRs, explained Strauch. “The Clearpath solution should integrate easily with the Rockwell systems,” she predicted. “Rockwell has fixed robot arms that can complement the AMRs, and the Kinetix platform is a great motion drive. ControlLogix has the built-in motion libraries, making motion development easier. This helps integrators provide single-supplier broad-solution packages, saving time and money.”

The purchase will put Rockwell in other markets, too, noted Strauch. “Clearpath has one example of towing an aircraft at an airport,” she explained. “Imagine coordination of baggage systems with aircraft parking. Clearpath has agricultural robots, as well, and robots in lakes and rivers. The larger markets keep Rockwell moving forward as a technology company, not just an industrial-automation company. Kudos to the business-development team and marketing at Rockwell for forward-thinking.”

Welcome to the family

In the wake of the Rockwell-acquisition announcement, Clearpath introduced the Otto 1200 AMR, designed with a narrow width to move payloads up to 1,200 kg (2,640 lb) safely and autonomously. Equipped with patented adaptive fieldset technology, the Otto 1200 is designed to maneuver around people and turn in space-constrained environments.

“Working closely with our customers on hundreds of deployments worldwide, we discovered an opportunity to deliver high throughput in narrow spaces without sacrificing heavy payload capabilities,” said Rendall. “Otto 1200 adds a compact, heavy-duty platform to our existing fleet of AMRs, enabling manufacturers to address a diverse range of material handling needs.”

About the Author

Mike Bacidore | Editor in Chief

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Control Design and has been an integral part of the Endeavor Business Media editorial team since 2007. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning multiple regional and national awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at [email protected] 

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