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Robotics in Manufacturing

Written by Michael Lynes

Apocalypse Now?


  • What are the latest trends in manufacturing robotics?
  • Who are the biggest players in the manufacturing robotics market?
  • What is the history of manufacturing robotics?

  • Manufacturing robotics

THE DARK SIDE

Robot Doomsday, also known as the Droid Desolation or the AI Armageddon, is here. Frankly, as a long-time fan of dystopian science fiction, I really thought that the dawn of the decline of human supremacy would be more dramatic. To paraphrase the now classic anti-war movie Apocalypse Now: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

This line is originally from T.S. Eliot’s less famous (but in many ways more interesting) poem “The Hollow Men” [1]—which, in turn, was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the novel on which Apocalypse Now was based. Eliot wrote the piece while living in post-World War I England. In it, we also find many references to the emptiness of existence and the futility of striving. It is a dark and haunting work, composed during a time of great suffering and despair. However, it seems to me now appropriate for our current times.

The line between organic and artificial intelligence (AI) is blurring. The archetype of the hollow man could be applied to the more disturbing aspects of AI-powered robot tech. For example, unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve checked out Boston Dynamics and its robot apocalypse enforcer dog, Spot.

Ah, Spot…what can I say, except that every time I see it on video I get the willies. I am not sure what mad genius is behind the creation of this device, but I’m willing to bet that some psychological trauma during their youth played a role. Sure, Boston Dynamics is advertising this bot as a sorta-cute pet robodog assistant. But with the addition of the Arm, which frankly reminds me of the mouth of the Queen Mother from Alien, it is super scary [2].

And that’s not all—not by a long shot. The company also makes a man-shaped bot called Atlas [3], based on their first prototype, PETMAN [4]. Atlas, in my opinion, is a giant step toward field-deployable robot soldiers. Again, the company has tried to depict this potential soulless killing machine as a helpful gofer, able to bring you your tool bag or a brown paper lunch if you happen to be wanting a little nosh on the job site. It can also be programmed to perform cute dance routines [5]. But all I see is an early model of the super battle droid in that scene from Attack of the Clones.

Of the current products that Boston Dynamics produces, the only one that seems to be targeted towards helping, rather than scaring the pants off, humanity is their warehouse bot, Stretch [6]. Now Stretch I sort of like. It reminds me of a semi-intelligent forklift, and its ability to offload the drudgery currently endured by, for example, the overworked employees of Amazon [7], seems to me to be a positive development.

With all that said, even though Boston Dynamics, now part of Google, has been pushing the envelope of this industry for more than twenty years, in my humble opinion they are no longer on the cutting edge. Perhaps because most of their early funding came from DARPA, they focused on robotics that would serve a military mission, rather than a commercial and functional role. Other players, notably Tesla with their Optimus droid, have surpassed them.

THE LIGHT SIDE

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Don’t get me wrong. Despite the concerns expressed above, I’m the furthest thing from a robot Luddite. In fact, one of my favorite robot-human cooperative worlds is depicted in I, Robot, a collection of short stories by visionary author Isaac Asimov. In this imagined universe, the author describes the positive aspects of the integration of robotics into human society. Asimov’s robots are the benefactors of humankind, taking over the menial, dangerous, and unfulfilling tasks that are necessary for a functioning economy. Powered by AI “positronic” brains, these helper droids seamlessly integrate into human society. They are factory workers, sewer cleaners, demolition workers, and construction workers. They provide humanity with excellently prepared food, keep houses clean and tidy, and watch over children and pets.

This utopian vision is made possible by the now famous “Three Laws of Robotics” [8]. Deliberately patterned after Issac Newton’s three laws of thermodynamics, Asimov’s laws are both hierarchical and interlocking, designed to ensure that robots are safe when operating among humans. In fact, the First Law states that “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

When I read these stories, written in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I was enthralled by the concept. A world where all people would be free of dirty, tedious tasks, able to pursue their inner muse—whether it be song, or painting, music, or writing—as they no longer need to spend all their time earning a living just to scrape by. In fact, Unimate #001, the first robot manufacturing prototype, was directly inspired by Asimov’s stories. The project was a collaboration between Joseph Engelberger, also known as the Father of Robotics, and George Devol, and awarded a patent in 1961 [9][10]. The pair went on to found the world’s first robotics company Unimation, selling their robot arm to General Motors for use in its automotive castings plant in Trenton, NJ (Figure 1).

FIGURE 1
Unimate, the first industrial robot
FIGURE 1
Unimate, the first industrial robot

From these humble beginnings, Unimation went on to see its robots employed in many manufacturing environments [11]. Engelberger continued to market his devices as labor-saving and cost-efficient, but he began to see pushback from United States automotive labor unions in the form of protests and strikes. He was much more successful in selling his vision in Japan, with Kawasaki Aircraft Corporation being the initial partner. The Japanese wholeheartedly embraced the idea of labor-saving robots and much of the innovation in the industry began to be driven from Asia.

THE PHANTOM MENACE

Fast forward fifty years. Robots are now ubiquitous throughout manufacturing, with penetration into nearly every size business. The original robotic arm concept has morphed into countless forms, and with the addition of various types of machine vision, force sensors, stepper motors, and many other innovations, robots can perform the most delicate tasks with precision and speed. Robotics has progressed far beyond the industrial sector, right down to the student, hobbyist, and DIY marketplaces. Small-volume robotic manufacturing in the form of 3D printers, robotic CNC machines, and automated pick-and-place are legion, with far too many players to name in this article. Engineering challenges—everything from autonomous locomotion to environmental sensing, manipulation of objects to language processing—have been worked on for decades and, one by one, conquered.

As you can see, this is a vast universe with a lot of players in the market. For the purposes of this article, we’ll go through three types of robotic manufacturing: heavy industry, small business, and hobbyist/DIY. Each of these markets drives innovation into the other sectors, and benefits from the broader universe of AI itself.

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Speaking of AI, I think the true “robot revolution” is already happening in the automotive sector, with Tesla at, or near, the forefront. Full Self-Driving version 12 (FSD v12) is nearing a general release to the Tesla driving public [12]. As I was saying at the beginning of this article, I am surprised at how little attention this is getting. Perhaps it’s just good marketing or a more trusting populace. But, bluntly stated, using FSD means placing your life, the lives of your children, and the lives of the general public at large into the “hands” of an autonomous robot that weighs over two tons and can accelerate from 0 to 60mph in less than four seconds—all while streaming Netflix on its integrated touchscreen.

HEAVY STANCE

The heavy industry sector was the first to adopt robotics, starting all the way back with GM in their Trenton, NJ castings works, as mentioned above. Today all types of heavy industry use robotics, with some assembly lines being fully human-free. The advantages are obvious, safety being one of the first, as well as productivity, speed, and optimal 24-hour operations. Below, we’ll go through a few of the industry leaders in this sector.

ABB Ltd.: With their recent acquisition of Sevensense, ABB has expanded its expertise in AI-enabled 3D vision Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) navigation technology [13]. Sevensense integrates and shares sense data from all its robots in a particular environment, allowing each to leverage the data acquisition of the whole to form a complete environmental map. Sevensense’s robots navigate easily through complex industrial environments, sensing factory workers and other objects as they carry loads through the production space (Figure 2). This “crowd-sourced” integrated data allows a newly deployed robot to learn about its environment organically, minimizing the need for training. The system is continually updated, such that changes to the environment are sensed and uplinked by one robot, adding to the overall map used by all.

FIGURE 2
Sevensense AMR moving a car chassis
FIGURE 2
Sevensense AMR moving a car chassis

ABB has the world’s leading footprint in more traditional robotic manufacturing. Its robots can be found throughout all sorts of industries, serving markets as diverse as hamburger packing plants, aluminum machining, life science, and logistics. The GoFa “cobot” (as ABB names them), in conjunction with the China-based AI corporation XtalPi’s intelligent automation environment, allows scientists to automate the more manual aspects of laboratory work (Figure 3). GoFa robots perform repetitive tasks, working non-stop to efficiently and precisely gather large volumes of data, without the human error typical of these boring environments. Each workstation can be programmed to perform many hundreds of experiments under minimal supervision. Scientists are free to perform more human-centric tasks of analysis, rather than having to become a bottle washer, reagent mixer, and test tube cleaner between each set of data gathering.

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FIGURE 3
ABB automated laboratory workstation
FIGURE 3
ABB automated laboratory workstation

KUKA AG: KUKA, based in Augsburg, Germany, is a global leader in intelligent AI-based automation solutions. Founded 125 years ago as an acetylene gas company for lighting homes, the advent and adoption of electric lighting for homes and offices, safer than gas, saw them transition to oxyacetylene welding equipment for heavy manufacturing. KUKA has been active in automation since the mid-1950s, adding robotics to its portfolio in 1970. It introduced one of the first six-axis industrial robots with electrically driven motors for automated welding systems, and jumped into PC-controlled robotics in the early 1990s.

Today, KUKA serves the needs of manufacturing worldwide, and its industrial robots are among the strongest in the world. The KR FORTEC line has variants for machine tooling, milling, foundry operations, and metal castings (Figure 4). For more human-centric work, KUKA has a full line of medical robotics, from the ROBERT LSR (Life Science Robotics) model designed for robot-assisted rehab (Figure 5) to robotic-assisted rotation osteotomy (joint surgery). In partnership with Shanghai People’s Hospital, KUKA has created the SpheriObot (Figure 6). The precision afforded by robotics allows experienced surgeons to accomplish extensive reconstruction on critical joints, such as the femoral head/hip socket joint, all while maximizing patient outcomes and minimizing infection and discomfort.

FIGURE 4
KUKA FORTEC multi-industry arm
FIGURE 4
KUKA FORTEC multi-industry arm

FIGURE 5
ROBERT rehab session
FIGURE 5
ROBERT rehab session

FIGURE 6
SpheriObot Hip Socket Osteotomy
FIGURE 6
SpheriObot Hip Socket Osteotomy

Kawasaki Heavy Industries: Last, but not least, is the venerable Kawasaki Heavy Industries. As mentioned above, Kawasaki was the first company to license the original Unimation robotic technology in Japan. One year later in 1969, it began to produce the Unimate locally, and transitioned to robots of their own design in the early 1980s. Kawasaki kept up the innovation trend, releasing new models for use in general-purpose manufacturing (J-series), and a larger general-purpose line in the early 1990s (U-series). In the early 21st century, the company acquired painting robot technology from Kobe Steel, and launched a line of paint bots and cleaning bots based on that tech. The picKstar warehouse picking robot debuted in 2009, and both medical and cobot (human-robot collaboration) models were launched in 2015.

Integration with AI tech has transformed the industry, and Kawasaki has kept pace. Its latest offering, Kaliedo (Figure 7), is a humanoid robot designed to interact autonomously with humans in practical real-life applications. While far from the performance seen in other offerings such as Optimus from Tesla, this bot has the potential to serve applications such as elderly assistance, search and rescue, and general maintenance tasks.

FIGURE 7
Kaleido Prototype
FIGURE 7
Kaleido Prototype

SMALL BUSINESS

The robotic revolution is already deeply entrenched in SME-sized corporations as well. There is even a cottage industry of robotics resellers and integrators that will sell you the device as well as install, set up, and maintain your in-house robotic assistant.

Versabuilt Robotics: Located in Boise, Idaho, Versabuilt Robotics was born from the frustration that its parent SME, Rekluse Motorsports, experienced when trying to set up and integrate robotics into its production line. The breakthrough turned out to be allowing the same set of jaws to be shared by the robot and the CNC machine. Once solved, the management of Rekluse realized that there were far more applications for its technology than their own business, and they formed Versabuilt as a separate entity. Its innovative solution was patented under the trade name Multi-Grip (Figure 8). Today Versabuilt Robotics provides a line of turn-key high-mix Mill Automation and Lathe Automation systems. It will sell you the system and then send someone onsite to install and customize it to your specific needs.

FIGURE 8
Versabuilt with Multi-Grip
FIGURE 8
Versabuilt with Multi-Grip

Rapid Robotics: Rapid Robotics, based in San Francisco with three US locations, is an innovative startup whose slogan is “Robotics without the risk.” Its focus is flexible, easy-to-use robots that can reduce or eliminate many of the large start-up costs of automating your SME. Founded in 2019, the company specializes in engineering, manufacturing, end-of-line processes, and machine tending solutions, among others. Rapid’s key to market is removing the headaches from SME robotic integration, leveraging the workforce shortage that plagues many industries, while still retaining human workers for less tedious or repetitive tasks. Its solutions for case packing, weighing and taping, and machine tending free high-turnover workers for more productive tasks. And its parts-washing solution is tailored for SME manufacturers (Figure 9); this is another area where humans can be exposed to volatiles and fluids, whereas a robot has no hazard and does a better job.

FIGURE 9
Automated parts cleaning
FIGURE 9
Automated parts cleaning

HOBBYIST/STUDENT

Thor: Not to be left out of the robotics manufacturing mash-up, we have hobbyist open-source projects. One of the best I found was an open-source 3D printable robotic arm from Thor. In a perfect microcosm example of robots building robots, Thor’s arm is meant to be 3D printed on your home setup, and then assembled with the instructions available from their site. Firmware and control software are provided as well, along with the tools to modify it yourself. A video linked on Circuit Cellar’s Article Materials and Resources webpage shows the arm in action, with possibilities only limited by your imagination [15].

Arduino: Arduino also has a hobbyist “industrial” robot arm that you can build. Their Tinkerkit Braccio robot (Figure 10) sells for under $300 and can be built in several different configurations. An assembly video and example code are available to assist the hobbyist. Once it is completed, there are a lot of learning experiences to be had. Braccio can be configured as your own home-based cobot [16]. The lifting capacity of the Braccio is limited as it is made from lightweight plastic, but it does have full six-axis mobility, just like the big boys.

FIGURE 10
Tinkerbot—an arm for everyone
FIGURE 10
Tinkerbot—an arm for everyone

APOCALYPSE NOW!

Abandon all hope! The END is near!

Well, it may not be all that bad. But as I wrote above, the AI/robot apocalypse has already happened, and it seems no one has noticed. In my opinion, the thin edge of this knife was not ChatGPT or any of its multifarious competitors or imitators. The real culprit is our friend Elon Musk and his company Tesla. To be clear, I am not talking about his million-strong fleet of robot cars somehow rising up and rebelling against their creators, in an echo of the wonderful and chilling short story “Auto-da-Fé,” written by one of my favorite sci-fi authors, Robert Zelazny. No, it is Tesla’s humanoid robot, Optimus, of which I speak.

Optimus is the future. It is full-out amazing, and if you aren’t yet familiar, check out the video on Circuit Cellar’s Article Materials and Resources webpage to see what I am going on about [17]. As you can see in Figure 11, the bot has beautifully precise control of its hands, and can walk easily and autonomously through a completely unknown space using its neural networks to learn about its environment in much the same way that humans do.

FIGURE 11
Optimus at work
FIGURE 11
Optimus at work

A word about those networks. Tesla has adopted the approach of using its entire fleet of cars to record and upload their driving experiences. The concept of Tesla’s HydraNet is not revolutionary, but its application is [18]. Nicknamed after the mythical beast, HydraNet has many input “heads” that provide data to the system. Experiences are gathered and used to update and expand the neural network training dataset of the entire fleet. Each new Tesla deployed in the real world educates all others as the neural network’s experience set grows.

Additionally, the cars learn from what their human drivers do, even when they are not in FSD mode. This massive amount of data is also being used to educate Optimus. In the final analysis, the Tesla bot-training dataset grows in a non-linear fashion, much like the Internet, or any nodal network. With the addition of each new node, the entire network becomes more capable and powerful, accelerating towards convergence. I believe we have already passed the so-called “tipping point,” and with the expected release of FSD 12, it will be real-world and provable. Optimus, with full autonomy, will not be far behind. The shock wave will ripple across the world, much like the one caused by the Unimate, but I expect far more disruptive and transformative.

SPRING!

And that brings me back to us, humans, the formerly singular intelligent inhabitants of Sol-3. The month of March is upon us, the icy grip of winter is loosening, and soon crocus and daffodils will be pushing up through the softening ground. Hollow People—AKA Atlas, Optimus, and bots yet unnamed and unknown—still lack the capacity to appreciate the beauty and wonder of our shared world. Exercise your human privilege! Push back your chair, put down this magazine, and go out into the spring sunshine. Until next month! 

RESOURCES
KUKA AG | www.kuka.com
Rapid Robotics | www.rapidrobotics.com
Thor | thor.angel-lm.com
Versabuilt Robotics | www.versabuilt.com

REFERENCES
[1] “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot (Source: allpoetry.com): https://allpoetry.com/the-hollow-men
[2] Boston Dynamics’ Spot Arm (scary): https://bostondynamics.com/products/spot/arm/
[3] Boston Dynamics’ Atlas (also scary): https://youtu.be/-e1_QhJ1EhQ
[4] Boston Dynamics’ PETMAN (OG scary): https://youtu.be/mclbVTIYG8E
[5] Boston Dynamics’ Atlas dance routine: https://youtu.be/fn3KWM1kuAw
[6] Stretch (not so scary): https://bostondynamics.com/products/stretch/
[7] Amazon Labor Issues:
https://www.wired.com/story/tired-filthy-and-overworked-inside-amazons-holiday-rush/
[8] Three Laws of Robotics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Laws_of_Robotics
[9] Joseph Engelberger, the Father of Robotics: https://www.automate.org/robotics/engelberger/joseph-engelberger-about#:~:text=Joseph%20F.,engineer%20and%20inventor%20George%20C
[10] George Devol: https://spectrum.ieee.org/unimation-robot
[11] Unimation robot: https://youtu.be/-Xl2c91pWGc
[12] Tesla FSD: https://www.teslarati.com/tesla-fsd-beta-v12-this-month/
[13] ABB Ltd: https://new.abb.com/products/robotics?_gl=1*jyb1v7*_ga*MTI1MDI0NTQ0My4xNzA1NDE1MjMx*_
[14] Kaleido: https://kawasakirobotics.com/asia-oceania/blog/story_22/
[15] Thor Arm video: https://youtu.be/F2CDeHrFr2k
[16] Improve human-robot collaboration with GhostAR—Arduino: https://blog.arduino.cc/2019/11/26/improve-human-robot-collaboration-with-ghostar/
[17] Tesla Optimus demo video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpraXaw7dyc
[18] HydraNet Tesla: https://youtu.be/j0z4FweCy4M

PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • MARCH 2024 #404 – Get a PDF of the issue

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Michael Lynes is an entrepreneur who has founded several startup ventures. He was awarded a BSEE degree in Electrical Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and currently works as an embedded software engineer. When not occupied with arcane engineering projects, he spends his time playing with his three grandchildren, baking bread, working on ancient cars, backyard birdwatching, and taking amateur photographs. He’s also a prolific author with over thirty works in print. His latest series is the Cozy Crystal Mysteries. Book one, Moonstones and Murder, is already in print, and book two is on its way. His latest works include several collections of ghost stories, short works of general fiction, a collection called Angel Stories, and another collection called November Tales, inspired by the fiction of Ray Bradbury. He currently lives with his wife Margaret in the beautiful, secluded hills of Sussex County, New Jersey. You can contact him via email at mikelynes@gmail.com.

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Robotics in Manufacturing

by Michael Lynes time to read: 14 min