Robots Can Build Cars; Now They Learn Not to Crush You

ABB's YuMi Robot

Robots long ago earned a place in factories, where their pneumatic pumps and steel welding arms help manufacture everything from cars to planes. Now, they’re learning to behave around people, bringing them one step closer to the Jetsons-esque dream of automated servants that might one day serve you coffee or iron your shirts.

While today’s robots are more agile than ever, they typically require a safety cage to keep them from harming the humans working around them. The world’s biggest robot makers -- Switzerland’s ABB Ltd., Japan’s Fanuc Corp. and Germany’s Kuka AG -- are rolling out machines with a new generation of sensors that dramatically cut the risk of injury and help them better interact with workers.

The latest robots in the $29 billion-a-year market are targeting the electronics industry, where factory automation lags behind businesses such as carmaking due to the intricate assembly process. The same sensors which ensure that a machine doesn’t crush a circuit board or co-worker bring the prospect of robots serving customers even closer, according to Kuka Chief Executive Officer Till Reuter.

“We will have a time where there are far more robots at home -- not just washing and cleaning robots, but other functionalities,” the executive said in an interview.

‘Intelligent Assistants’

The key is sensors that improve a robot’s awareness of its surroundings. Take YuMi, the torso-sized, dual-armed robot which Zurich-based ABB will start selling in April. Its built-in camera and pressure sensors allow it to mimic human movements to assemble small components for a watch or mobile phone, then physically hand them to a person alongside on the production line. ABB CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer says robots are increasingly able to learn from humans.

“There’s a fantastic opportunity,” the chief of ABB, which also makes power grids, said on Feb. 5, when the company said demand for its robots contributed to a 10 percent increase in orders last year. “A robot looks at you, sees what you’re doing and he copies you. Robots also become more intelligent in terms of understanding what he has in his hands and selecting what to do.”

Kuka promotes its LBR iiwa robot, introduced last year, as an “intelligent, industrial work assistant” whose built-in protection mechanisms and safe torque sensors in every axis allow it to safely work next to humans on the factory floor.

Surging Earnings

Kuka shares rose to the highest level in 19 years on Wednesday as rising demand helped the company to exceed its own forecast for sales and profitability. Revenue surged 18 percent to 2.1 billion euros while earnings before interest and taxes gained 18 percent to 142 million euros.

The electronics industry, currently dependent on as many as 10 million factory workers in Asia alone, could need 500,000 robots by 2020, Reuter estimates. There are currently about 1.3 million industrial robots in operation globally, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

The growth of the industry has attracted new players, ranging from software giant Google Inc. to online retailer Amazon.com Inc. and Chinese Web firm Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

Robots present a “great opportunity” in the next 20 to 30 years, Alibaba chief Jack Ma said Feb. 2 in Hong Kong as he pledged “significant” investment in artificial intelligence. Google has snaffled up at least seven companies since 2012, ranging from the robot imaging systems of Industrial Perceptions Inc, to Redwood Robotics’ humanoid robotic arms and to Boston Dynamics’ walking robot armies.

Oscar Stardom

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said in March that the Mountain View, California-based company is experimenting with automation in ways that will “replace a lot of the repetitive behavior in our lives.”

Still, Kuka’s Reuter doesn’t see Google as a threat as the U.S. software company lacks the 40 years’ mechatronics experience of ABB, Kuka and Fanuc. He says the likes of Google could be business partners, fusing their software expertise with the traditional players’ hardware experience to offer consumer robotic solutions.

Bot & Dolly, a company which Google acquired in 2013 and which provided robotic technology for the 2013 Oscar-winning film “Gravity,” already uses Kuka machines.

An immediate competitor is Amazon, which bought Kiva Systems Inc. for $775 million in 2012, and has used the robotmaker’s technology to start automating its distribution centers.

Warehouse Robots

Amazon’s Kiva robots can pick up a shelf and transport it through a warehouse to an employee who then adds or removes the necessary objects. A similar logic lies behind Kuka’s December decision to buy Swisslog, according to CEO Reuter.

“The next step will be not only to have a warehouse system, but a robot which can sort products,” he said, adding that Kuka’s robotic arms could fulfil that role.

While Reuter predicts the consumer market will ultimately outgrow industrial robotics, the current cost of machines made by Kuka, ABB and Fanuc -- starting at about 35,000 euros -- makes that unlikely any time soon. Until that time, the companies will try to fill repetitive jobs in electronics manufacturing with their machines.

“Most big companies producing electronics today, they can’t find enough people,” said ABB’s robots head Per Vegard Nerseth. “It’s not cost arbitrage -- more and more it’s about finding people to do the difficult, delicate and dull jobs.”

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