Robots won't kill the workforce. They'll save the global economy.

Ruchir Sharma for The Washington Post:  The United Nations forecasts that the global population will rise from 7.3 billion to nearly 10 billion by 2050, a big number that often prompts warnings about overpopulation. Some have come from neo-Malthusians, who fear that population growth will outstrip the food supply, leaving a hungry planet. Others appear in the tirades of anti-immigrant populists, invoking the specter of a rising tide of humanity as cause to slam borders shut. Still others inspire a chorus of neo-Luddites, who fear that the “rise of the robots” is rapidly making human workers obsolete, a threat all the more alarming if the human population is exploding.

Before long, though, we’re more likely to treasure robots than to revile them. They may be the one thing that can protect the global economy from the dangers that lie ahead.  Cont'd...

Robotics startup Exotec raises $3.5 million to help warehouses pack and dispatch goods using mini robots

Paul Sawers for Venture Beat:  A French robotics startup has raised €3.3 million ($3.5 million) to build and grow a fleet of mobile robots that help warehouses prepare orders for delivery.

The company was founded in 2015 by former GE Healthcare software architect Renaud Heitz and BA Systèmes technical director Romain Moulin,  and Exotec Solutions (“Exotec”) robots have already been tested across a number of industries. With $3.5 million more in its coffers, the company expects to launch its first robot — called Exo — into the wild in early 2017. The most recent round was raised from 360 Capital Partners, Breega Capital, and a handful of its existing investors.

The miniature robots are being targeted at any logistics operator that relies on humans to traverse large warehouses picking items off shelves, and it promises to cut employees’ average daily distance covered from 15km to 4km per day and to “[double] the productivity” of each worker. The robots are controlled by what the company calls a “centralized intelligence system,” which liaises between the humans and the robots on the ground.  Cont'd...

Metallic glass gears make for graceful robots

Science Daily:  Throw a baseball, and you might say it's all in the wrist.  For robots, it's all in the gears.  

Gears are essential for precision robotics. They allow limbs to turn smoothly and stop on command; low-quality gears cause limbs to jerk or shake. If you're designing a robot to scoop samples or grip a ledge, the kind of gears you'll need won't come from a hardware store.

At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, technologist Douglas Hofmann and his collaborators are building a better gear. Hofmann is the lead author of two recent papers on gears made from bulk metallic glass (BMG), a specially crafted alloy with properties that make it ideal for robotics.  Cont'd...

A new standard in robotics

Phys.org:  On the wall of Aaron Dollar's office is a poster for R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the 1920 Czech play that gave us the word "robot." The story ends with the nominal robots seizing control of the factory of their origin and then wiping out nearly all of humanity. Dollar, fortunately, has something more cheerful in mind for the future of human-robot relations.

He sees them as helpers in our daily lives—performing tasks like setting the table or assisting with the assembly of your new bookcase. But getting to the point where robots can work in the unstructured environment of our homes (as opposed to industrial settings) would take a major technological leap and a massive coordination of efforts from roboticists around the globe. The living room has been called the last frontier for robots—but first, the robotics community needs some standards that everyone can agree on.

Enter a suitcase-sized box containing 77 objects. It contains things like hammers, a cordless drill, a can of Spam and a nine-hole peg test. As ordinary as they may seem, these carefully curated household items could be the future of a new kind of standardization for robotics. Known as the Yale-CMU-Berkeley (YCB) Object and Model Set, the intent is to provide universal benchmarks for labs specializing in robotic manipulation and prosthetics around the world.  Cont'd...

Meet the robot whisperer who trains "big, monstrous, industrial robots" to follow her every command

Charlotte Whistlecroft for DigitalSpy:  If you think you're happy with your job, Madeline Gannon will definitely make you question your life, as this woman has managed to train giant robots to do things for her.

Nope, we're not joking - the founder of the Madlab Research Studio created "big, monstrous, industrial robots" and then tamed then, and she even has a nickname to prove it: The Robot Whisperer.

Which is all pretty impressive, if not terrifying, stuff.

Speaking at the WIRED Next Generation event in London, Madeline passed on her robot-taming skills to the audience of 12-18 year olds and shared her passion for turning 6-foot-tall factory line robots into tools any human can communicate with.  Cont'd...

ASU Robot learns to shoot hoops

ASU Interactive Robotics Lab:  The video shows a bi-manual robot that learns to throw a ball into the hoop using reinforcement learning. A novel reinforcement learning algorithm "Sparse Latent Space Policy Search" allows the robot to learn the task within only about 2 hours.

The robot repeatedly throws the ball and receives a reward based on the distance of the ball to the center of the hoop. Algorithmic details about the method can be found here: 

Foxconn reaches 40,000 robots of original 1 million robot automation goal

From Next Big Future:  In 2011, Foxconn had announced a plan to replace 500,000 mainland Chinese workers with 1 million robots over the next 3-5 years. 
Foxconn is the company that builds Apple's iPhone and iPad hardware and many of the android smartphones as well.
Foxconn, has so far installed 40,000 production robots across China as it looks to minimize the number of people it employs.
With the exception of some components like servo motors and speed reducers, the robots are being built entirely in-house, Foxconn's Dai Chia-peng told Taiwan's Central News Agency, as quoted by DigiTimes. It's unclear how many of the so-called "Foxbots" are being used to manufacture Apple products.
The machines are, however, said to be operating an industrial facility in Zhengzhou, a tablet plant in Chengdu, and computer/peripherals plants in Kunshan and Jiashan.   Cont'd...

As China Invests in Robotics, iRobot and Other Companies Eye Deals

Jeff Engel for Xconomy:  China emerged as a manufacturing powerhouse over the past few decades, thanks in large part to a deep pool of cheap labor. Now, the country is investing heavily in factory automation, and Boston-area robotics companies and their allies smell opportunity.

Executives from 11 New England robotics firms will travel to several cities in China later this month on a trade mission aimed at sparking business deals and more technology collaboration between the U.S. and China.

The trip is being organized by InTeahouse, along with local nonprofit robotics support group MassRobotics.   Cont'd...

Full Press Release:

Japanese Robotics Giant Gives Its Arms Some Brains

Will Knight for MIT Technology Review:  The big, dumb, monotonous industrial robots found in many factories could soon be quite a bit smarter, thanks to the introduction of machine-learning skills that are moving out of research labs at a fast pace. Fanuc, one of the world’s largest makers of industrial robots, announced that it will work with Nvidia, a Silicon Valley chipmaker that specializes in artificial intelligence, to add learning capabilities to its products.

The deal is important because it shows how recent advances in AI are poised to overhaul the manufacturing industry. Today’s industrial bots are typically programmed to do a single job very precisely and accurately. But each time a production run changes, the robots then need to be reprogrammed from scratch, which takes time and technical expertise.  Cont'd...

Google Canceled the Launch of a Robotic Arm After it Failed the 'Toothbrush Test'

Mark Bergen for Bloomberg:  Google published research this week detailing how its software enables robots to learn from one another. To demonstrate, the company’s scientists showed videos featuring robotic arms whirling inside its labs.

Google’s robotics group built those machines and wanted to sell them to manufacturers, warehouse operators and others. However, executives at Google parent Alphabet Inc. nixed the plan because it failed Chief Executive Officer Larry Page’s "toothbrush test," a requirement that the company only ship products used daily by billions of people, according to people familiar with the situation.  Cont'd...

Reviving Japan's Dairy Industry, One Milking Robot at a Time

Aya Takada for Bloomberg:  Jin Kawaguchiya gave up a career in finance to help revive Japan’s ailing dairy industry -- one robot at a time.

In a country that relies increasingly on imported foods like cheese and butter, Japan’s milk output tumbled over two decades, touching a 30-year low in 2014. Costs rose faster than prices as the economy stagnated, eroding profit, and aging farmers quit the business because they couldn’t find enough young people willing to take on the hard labor of tending to cows every day.

But technology is altering that dynamic. On the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan’s top dairy-producing region, Kawaguchiya transformed the 20-cow farm he inherited from his father-in-law 16 years ago into Asia’s largest automated milking factory. Robots extract the white fluid from 360 cows three times a day and make sure the animals are fed and healthy. The machines even gather up poop and deposits it in a furnace that generates electricity.  Cont'd...

A.I. and robotics could replace 6% of U.S. jobs by 2021

Sharon Gaudin  for ComputerWorld:  In just five years, intelligent systems and robots may have taken up to 6% of U.S. jobs, according to Forrester Research in a report released this week.

As artificial intelligence (A.I.) advances to better understand human behavior and make decisions on its own in complicated situations, it will enable smart software and robots to take on increasingly challenging jobs.  That means robotics should be able to take over some jobs traditionally held by humans by 2021.

For instance, Forrester predicts that smart systems like autonomous robots, digital assistants, A.I. software and chatbots will take over customer service rep jobs and eventually even serve as truck and taxi drivers.  Cont'd...

Safety solutions for intelligent human-robot collaboration

Fanny Platbrood for SafeToWork:  Human-robot collaboration (HRC) describes a work scenario in which humans and automated machines share and work in the same workspace at the same time. Driven by Industry 4.0, this model of collaboration promises highly flexible workflows, maximum system throughput and productivity, as well as economic efficiency. However, ensuring that HRC is actually able to live up to this promise requires exactly the right safety technology for the application in question.

One of the major issues associated with Industry 4.0 is making work processes flexible. At the extreme end of the spectrum, this may involve manufacturing products in batch size 1 under industrial mass-production conditions – that is, manufacturing unique items on a conveyor belt.   Cont'd...

Chinese robotics makers feast on government subsidies

Li Liuxi and Chen Na for Caixin Online:  Local governments pumped hundreds of millions of yuan into the robotics industry in the first half of the year, helping to boost profits by as much as 60 percent in those companies rushing to take advantage of the generosity.

With strong support from Beijing, China has embarked on a robot-building frenzy in the last two years in an effort to move beyond traditional manufacturing. But as often happens in industries targeted for development, poorly designed incentive programs often lead to abuse that results in millions of dollars in wasted funds.

Similar waste in China's electric-vehicle and renewable-energy sectors has led to the buildup of huge new capacity that is sometimes unusable or of such low quality that no market exists for the products.

In the case of robotics makers, Caixin found government funding made up a large portion of profits for a dozen manufactures listed in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing in the first six months of this year.  Cont'd...

The legacy of Willow Garage…The "PARC" for robotics

Kazu Komoto for ReadWrite:  The robotic industries have been one of the hottest topics worldwide since there has been progressing from the traditional manufacturing applications to the non-manufacturing applications such as service industry. Like other industries, startups in US Bay Area cover the whole area of the San Francisco-Silicon Valley has led the innovation. You have heard Savioke developing a butler robot for the hotel industry, Fetch Robotics developing a picking and transport robot for logistics that is also well known as Softbank has invested, and Suitable Technologies which has created a telepresence market.

In such robotics community in Bay Area, a group which has been recognized and respected is Willow Garage. There is a common point that all founders of companies mentioned above used to work for Willow Garage. Today, we are going to have a close look at Willow Garage, which is said: “Willow Garage in robotics industry is something like Bell Labs and Xerox Parc in the personal computer industry.”  Cont'd...

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