Advances in technology have resulted in an explosion in the potential applications for robotics.

Multiple robots from different manufacturers require orchestration

May 12, 2023
What to consider when you’re considering VDA 5050, MassRobotics interoperability standard or open RMF

The use of robotics in areas such as logistics and supply-chain operations has increased dramatically. This trend has been driven by the need for companies to improve productivity and efficiency in order to remain competitive. As a result, logistics and supply-chain companies, from consumer brands and retailers to third-party logistics companies (3PLs), are at the forefront of integrating autonomous robots into their operations. However, as they add more robots across multiple sites to tackle a growing number of tasks, they face increased complexity and coordination issues, which jeopardize the productivity gains that can be achieved through these solutions.

One of the key challenges faced by logistics and supply-chain companies is the lack of robot interoperability. In the manufacturing sector, this has been largely solved for several decades through the use of programmable logic controllers (PLCs)—a type of industrial control system that allows machines to communicate with each other and operate seamlessly, regardless of the manufacturer. PLCs use a common language, such as ladder logic, to control the actions of robots, sensors and other machines.

Get your subscription to Control Design's print magazine, free to qualified individuals in North America.

By standardizing the communication protocols and programming language used by different machines, PLCs enable interoperability in factories, making it possible for machines from different vendors to be integrated into a production line. This includes automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), which are mobile robots that typically follow magnetic lines or other fixed infrastructure to move material within a site, for instance bringing parts closer to where they are needed.

On the other hand, advances in technology have resulted in an explosion in the potential applications for robotics. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can move freely and plan their path without the need for changes to their environment. Computer vision-guided industrial arms can pick mixed items out of a bin at speeds approaching what humans can do. The potential is higher; however, these technologies are significantly more complex and rely on advanced artificial intelligence (AI.)

To be successful, robot developers must focus on developing highly specific solutions and ensure that their robots operate optimally in carrying out the tasks they were designed for. For example, a solution designed for transporting pallets would not work to manage a different type of robot, such as a robotic put wall or a floor scrubber. Therefore, it is not feasible to expect a single manufacturer to develop and commercialize robots for every possible use case. This means that end users are likely to purchase robots from multiple vendors, each with their own proprietary software.

Supply chains, with their need to adjust quickly to changing demands, require a higher level of flexibility than is possible with this legacy technology. As companies look to deploy autonomous mobile robots, cobot arms and computer vision-guided systems for a variety of functions, the current lack of interoperability results in a slower uptake. End users would like the ability to mix and match robots as they see fit, including the ability to coexist with technologies such as AGVs.

There have been some recent efforts to address interoperability issues in robotics. For example, the VDA-5050 and MassRobotics AMR interoperability-standard initiatives provide a technical mechanism to exchange data between robots. Open robotics middleware framework (RMF), which is tightly connected to the robot operating system (ROS), seeks to manage multiple robots operating in environments.

Each of these technologies also has its limitations. For instance, VDA treats AMRs more like their less-capable brethren, the AGVs that are more familiar to the automotive industry. MassRobotics can report the position of robots but cannot be used to assign them tasks. Open RMF is designed for specific environments and may not scale to situations with real-time path optimization across dozens of robots.

What end users really need is scalable, multi-vendor orchestration that allows different types of robots to work together. Robot orchestration software provides a solution to these issues, allowing companies to seamlessly integrate robots from multiple vendors and adapt to changing business needs (Figure 1). This software provides a unified interface that allows all robots to work together as part of a single operation. This means that companies can purchase robots from different vendors and still ensure that they work together efficiently and do not interfere with one another.

One potential use case for robot orchestration is integrating robots with the warehouse management system, other enterprise software like labor management systems and fixed infrastructure such as cameras, doors or lifts. Rather than spend months creating a custom solution that connects a specific robot to a particular piece of equipment, orchestration would allow the end users to try different robots until they find the one that best fits their needs.

Another case is managing warehouse robots that perform different types of missions. End users may purchase robots from multiple vendors, each with their own proprietary software, making it difficult to coordinate their actions. For example, a mobile robot may be responsible for transporting pallets, while a fixed robot takes care of depalletizing and yet another robot handles item put-away. A warehouse orchestration system can improve the overall efficiency of the warehouse operation, as the robots are able to coexist, coordinate their behavior and ultimately collaborate on an optimal end-to-end workflow.

Finally, robot orchestration can help companies adapt to changing business needs. As companies grow and expand, their robotic operations need to evolve, as well. Orchestration software can provide the flexibility needed to quickly reconfigure robotic operations to meet new demands. For example, if a company decides to change the layout of its warehouse, the orchestration software can be used to quickly reconfigure the flow of goods and the operation of the robots to match the new layout.

Florian Pestoni, co-founder and CEO of InOrbit, will present " The Growing Need for Robot Orchestration" at 1:30 pm on May 23 during A3's Automate 2023 in Detroit. Contact him at [email protected].

Register for the conference at Automate Registration.