The robotics trade has seen super progress over the previous couple of years. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this progress by opening up extra sectors of the economic system to robotics. Right this moment, hundreds of cellular robots are operating round warehouses and factories, and robotic arms that had been as soon as welding or portray in a Toyota or GM manufacturing facility are actually flipping hamburgers on the White Fortress down the street.
With this progress, the robotics trade finds itself at a crossroads different applied sciences have been in earlier than. This crossroads is a key choice level that may result in even greater and brighter issues, or to a slowdown and even worse outcomes. Just like the sensor trade and the telecom trade earlier than them, the robotics trade has come to a crossroads on interoperability, which is the power for robots from a number of producers to work and talk with one another. When telecom and sensor corporations got here to this crossroads, they put their variations apart and got here to agreements on how you can work collectively so extra customers would be capable to use their tools. By means of interoperability, these industries grew the dimensions of the proverbial pie, and everybody benefited.
The robotics trade is now on the interoperability crossroads and it seems just like the writing is clearly on the wall. Many have already embraced the concept of interoperability and others are coming to the desk. As we head into 2022, what’s the present state of interoperability for the robotics trade? The place are we making progress and the place do we want extra work and extra settlement?
We’ve come a good distance
In 2019, I used to be one of many audio system on the first Autonomous Cellular Robotic Convention in Louisville, Kentucky. My speak was titled “Roadmaps and Roadblocks for AMRs in Logistics.” My objective was to present the fledgling cellular robotic trade an concept of what it will take to essentially get extra robots into the logistics trade.
One of many key factors in my speak was the significance of interoperability going ahead. For the aim of my presentation, I identified all the several types of tools and the varied variety of distributors FedEx already utilized in simply our operations on the Memphis World Hub. A few of these distributors offered related tools, however none of them may produce the quantity of kit we wanted. Then there’s the overall enterprise observe of by no means permitting a single provider to be so huge that it turns into a threat to our operation. By means of all of those factors, I attempted to make it clear that corporations that made their robots able to plugging into an current system with different robots and different items of kit would discover themselves on the prime of our partnership checklist.
After the speak, I used to be approached by many within the trade who agreed that interoperability wanted to be checked out. Sadly, I had extra individuals inform me they didn’t see interoperability occurring anytime quickly. The objective for robotics corporations at the moment was to get as many purchasers as doable, attempt to embed themselves into their operations and tackle as most of the duties as doable. All good I advised them, till your pallet shifting robotic had a face-off within the aisle with my mopping robotic. The response I received was, “Perhaps we should always make your mopping robotic as effectively?”
One of these hubris from some robotic companies was typical in 2019. The idea they might resolve all the points with their robots, or their imaginative and prescient system, or their AI was all too widespread. Then the pandemic hit.
The pandemic modified all the things
Not many good issues may be stated about pandemics, however they’re change brokers. For the robotics trade, this pandemic opened doorways into new industries and completely blew the doorways off of others. For these of us within the logistics trade, it turned clear that we wanted to automate like by no means earlier than. The increase in e-commerce and a really tight labor market put robotics and automation on the prime of the checklist for a lot of logistics executives.
For the robotics trade, telephones began ringing not solely from the logistics trade, however quite a few others. Coping with their very own labor crunch, many established corporations centered on offering their core robotic choices. New startups got here into being to deal with these new, distinctive alternatives. The pandemic had kicked off a brand new increase for the trade, however it additionally shined a lightweight on the constraints of the trade. The dearth of interoperability got here into focus for a lot of extra of my fellow finish consumer associates. The excellent news was some had left Louisville with a brand new name to motion and had been already engaged on a possible resolution.
Interoperability goes international
Quite a few teams throughout the globe in 2021 began to have a look at methods to handle interoperability. In Singapore, Open Robotics labored with the Changi Normal Hospital to create a system that allowed quite a few robots from totally different producers to function collectively within the shared area of the hospital, together with tying into the constructing’s personal infrastructure corresponding to elevators and fireplace alarm methods. In Germany, VDMA and its members checked out methods to carry interoperability nearer to actuality. Right here within the U.S., a staff of corporations at MassRobotics developed a baseline standard that allowed for robots to supply their standing.
Different organizations just like the ARM Institute funded initiatives round interoperability. In January 2022, a type of initiatives, led by Siemens, will exhibit the way it achieved interoperability on the FedEx DART facility in Memphis. The ARM Institute undertaking consists of different corporations and organizations corresponding to Waypoint Robotics (now owned by Locus Robotics), Vecna Robotics, Yaskawa and the University of Memphis.
The place are we now?
This previous 12 months, interoperability was entrance and heart on the Autonomous Cellular Robotic Convention. From panel discussions to particular person audio system, there have been few that didn’t point out interoperability. Does this make it a carried out deal then? Not but.
Now we have entered a crossroads inside a crossroads. As an trade, I believe we all know interoperability goes to occur. What we don’t know but is how are we going to do it. Robotic producers need to maintain on to as a lot of the key sauce that makes their robots distinctive, whereas additionally giving finish customers as many choices of their heterogeneous fleets. There must be give and tackle each side. It’s going to take extra corporations and organizations coming to the desk.
There must be critical thought concerning the place these discussions will happen. As talked about earlier than, there have been quite a few efforts across the globe specializing in interoperability. The excellent news is that this reveals how vital interoperability is, however it additionally reveals that it could be time to centralize these efforts, so we will guarantee we get nearer to a harmonized taste of interoperability that everybody can dwell with.
Thus far, organizations like ISO, ANSI and A3 have stayed on the sidelines. This isn’t to say they haven’t inspired or assisted in a few of this work, however it could be time for them to tackle a higher position. These organizations are constructed to be extra impartial and to supply greater tables for extra voices.
My hope for 2022 is that interoperability continues to be within the entrance of everybody’s thoughts – each producers and finish customers. I hope we discover widespread floor that enables for additional growth of what’s doable. This may solely occur if everybody looks like their hopes and issues are addressed. I’m prepared and I hope you’re too. All of us are wanted to make this occur.
Concerning the writer
With almost 25 years at FedEx, Aaron Prather has developed and deployed quite a few know-how purposes throughout the FedEx enterprise. From Hub operations in Memphis, Indianapolis, and Oakland, to Courier Operations all over the world, he has labored in each nook of FedEx’s day-to-day operations.
In his present position as Senior Advisor, Know-how Planning & Analysis, Prather leads efforts to search out and deploy new applied sciences into FedEx operations, together with robotics and automation. He sits on the corporate’s Operations Know-how Council which coordinates efforts throughout all the FedEx corporations.
Exterior of FedEx, Prather participates in growing robotic requirements on the RIA and UL. By means of the FedEx Institute of Know-how on the College of Memphis, he works with universities and faculties within the growth of academic applications for the following era of technologists in logistics. Prather acquired an MBA from Christian Brothers College and holds a BS from College of Memphis in Geographic Info Science and Cartography.