Schunk Expert Days reveal state of robotics

Group shot of speakers at the 2019 International Expert Days.

One of the things I like about attending Schunk’s annual two-day International Expert Days conference is that it covers a range of topics. From conversations with speakers, exhibitors, and fellow attendees, I get a feel for what users need and the challenges robot and gripper makers face in meeting those needs.

Another attraction is that it’s a small event: 180 people including the speakers. And they stick around for the whole conference. It’s like a family affair — intimate, personal, and informative.

Henrik Schunk, who gave the opening and closing remarks at the event, is the third-generation CEO of family-owned Schunk. Schunk is a large manufacturer of clamps, tool changers, arms, and over 2,500 different grasping devices. Schunk will be exhibiting in booth 103 at the Robotics Summit & Expo, produced by The Robot Report, June 5-6 at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston.

Style, precision, and efficiency is the company’s mantra, which it follows for all its products. After 70 years, Schunk today has more than 3,400 employees in nine factories and 33 subsidiaries, as well as distribution partners in more than 50 countries.

Expert Days in Denmark

For the first time, Schunk held its Expert Days outside of the factory town of Laufen in Germany. It chose Odense, Denmark, because it has a large, successful and growing robotics industry including collaborative and mobile robot makers, gripper makers, and an extensive and diverse range of experienced integrators and support businesses.

Denmark also has a large base of robot users. It ranked 6th in the world for highest density of robot workers – 211 robots per 10,000 employees in manufacturing. The U.S. ranked 7th with 189, and the global average in 2017 was 74.

Odense is also the center of an extensive and supportive robotics and automation cluster that includes 10+ research and education facilities, 150 companies, 3,600 employees and a large group of seed and venture financing and funding institutions.

In his opening keynote, Peter Rahbaek Juel, the mayor of Odense, spoke about trends that are driving automation and the robotics industry in the region and his city. He explained how they can support the growth of automation by providing digital education for the next generation of talent.

The city and region are also reducing red tape so that businesses can scale up quickly and recruit talent from near and far. Juel noted that both the government and businesses will benefit from understanding, promoting, and sharing the dynamics of Industry 4.0 and the forthcoming 5.0 trends for the region.

Grasping and perception

At last year’s Automatica in Munich, Dr. Michael Zürn, a Daimler executive, gave a talk about Mercedes Benz’s use of robotics. He said it had 50 models of cars, but more than 500 types of grippers. Zürn added that the two-armed YuMi robots were the closest to what the automaker needs yet nowhere near what a two-handed worker could do with ease.

Thus, it was no surprise that at this year’s Expert Days, grasping and perception were the themes of several presentations. Nikolaus Blümlein, a LIDL executive, showed the challenges his retail store chain faces in restocking open cases. He complained that there is no robotic solution at the present time. (Coincidentally, on a side trip to the robotics startup hub and labs of the Danish Technological Institute, I saw a private R&D project sponsored by Coop, another grocery chain, developing a robot lifting and sliding open cases of cans from pallet to shelf.)

Amazon’s German Development Center’s chief researcher, Sebastian Höfer, described Amazon’s ongoing work to bring data-driven solutions to all of its 175 fulfillment centers. Amazon is focusing on robotic manipulation because it has difficulties hiring enough people to meet the demand for rapid e-commerce order fulfillment. It needs robotic picking and packing solutions to augment the parcel processes it has already automated.

A University of Darmstadt professor, Jan Peters, spoke about robots that will soon be able to learn tasks triggered by environmental context or higher-level instruction. He showed a graphic of what a man’s body would look like if each part grew in proportion to the area of the cortex of the brain concerned with its sensory perception, with the eyes, mouth, and hands enlarged. The challenge is to mechanically duplicate all of that capability into end effectors. We are far, far away from that capability today.

Helping integrators, end users

In a conversation with Esben Østergaard, co-founder and chief technology officer of Universal Robots, we discussed some of UR’s new products and services. For example, URCaps is an online showroom providing cutting-edge, add-on products, from grippers to cameras to software and all sorts of accessories. They’re all UR-certified, and all provide low-risk integration. URCaps isn’t like the Apple App Store because Universal Robots doesn’t take a cut of each sale like Apple does.

Østergaard kept mum about what the 150+ UR research engineers are working on. We also discussed how important integrators are to UR’s sales. Østergaard said that there is a serious shortage of knowledgeable integrators and that finding skilled people and companies is getting harder and costlier.

Oliver Stahl, CEO and co-founder of Robotise, a German manufacturer of a hospitality service robot, talked about how important it is for service robots to be intuitive for both the end user and from the operator. He described all the thought and engineering that went into building Jeeves, a hospitality robot with multiple drawers enabling multiple deliveries.

Robotise’s mobile robot relieves skill shortages, helps staffers, generates revenue, improves services, and delights guests, Stahl said. A comment from a hotel guest: “The highlight of our stay was this little service robot that brought a bottle of Prosecco and Aperol to our room, even at night! Brilliant!”

Partnerships and standards

Three Ps: Many of the speakers and exhibitors described their R&D connection to one or more of the public-private partnerships funded by the European Union. These P-P-Ps are common and extensive in the EU, Japan, and Korea but not in the U.S., where funding is more entrepreneurial, nor in China, where funding is mandated by long-term strategic goals set by the government.

Standards and safety: As robots get vision, distancing and haptics, they run up against a lack of standardization. For example, every mobile robot maker’s charging station is different from all the others. This makes it difficult if a multi-vendor solution is called for. This is just one of many examples of non-standard data, software and connectors.

Niels Jul Jacobsen, CTO and co-founder of Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), another Odense success that sold last April to Teradyne, discussed the need for a reliable platform on which to hang all the various devices and apps that make their robots perform.

He cited Microsoft’s 10-year reign with Robot Studio, which was pulled from the market just when builders began to rely on it. Although ROS and ROS-Industrial offer much, neither is a true platform. Now Qualcomm, Nvidia, and Google are offering RB3, Isaac, and Google Cloud Robotics respectively. Jacobsen asked whether they can be trusted and which to choose.

Another speaker, Thomas Pilz of Pilz GmbH, talked about the need for measurement standards particularly with risk assessments. He observed that over 60% of collaborative robot installations were still fenced.

Schunk’s International Expert Days are particularly effective in continually bringing up safety, ethical, and insurance certifications for our industry. They might seem dull to talk about, but such conversations are very necessary.

Looking ahead

Microrobots: In a not-so-futuristic presentation about millimeter-scale soft materials, a professor from the EPF Lausanne, Jamie Paik, demonstrated a 3D printed, multi-layered, 2D pop-up robot. These origami-like robots, which you can see in the video above, enable flexible microrobots for medical, environmental and search and rescue tasks. The 2D printouts pop up to 3D allowing inexpensive mass fabrication, low profile bodies with functional material components for precision actuation, sensing and mobility

Artificial intelligence as it applies to robotic perception was a big topic, as were the forthcoming 5G wireless technology and Industry 5.0. Multiple speakers and exhibitors cited the progress being made. To be able to command a robot verbally instead of line-by-line coding requires levels of cognition, motion prediction, geometric reasoning, and physics that are not presently available.

Thus, there were many conversations about separating hype from fact. But these technologies are coming. It is similar to the bin-picking promotion that has been going on for the past 10 years. At Automatica, there were 14 bin-picking demonstrations but few bin-picking stations in the manufacturing world. And for small and midsize enterprises, the number is close to zero.

A colleague asked: “Why is the adoption rate of automated bin picking systems so low, when the need is so great and so many vendors claim to offer a solution?”

The answer is complex. There’s science involved. And much of what is demonstrated from labs today won’t be commercialized and in the marketplace for eight to 10 years. Thus the frustration.

Service robotics today is incremental in its progress. We are getting what’s possible even though we want (and often expect) something more comprehensive, more capable, and more intuitive. But that’s why Expert Days are so meaningful to me. They provide a window into what remains to be done.

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