New Software Rewrites the Future of Robot Programming
Robots are capable of so much more. Imagine if you could easily harness that power and flexibility. What if you could exploit the full capabilities of any robotic cell no matter how many robots or axes are involved, regardless of the number or types of processes performed, or the variety of tooling? Envision the possibilities.
Now picture software with no limits. Software with unmatched flexibility and configurability. Software built from the ground up to eliminate the constraints of complex robot programming. Whether you are a first-time robot user or an experienced integrator, you get error-free results. Deployment happens in days, not months.
A revolution is in the making. It starts with Robotmaster V7 software. This is a task-based robot programming platform built around the user, for the user. Robotics expertise is no longer a prerequisite. Navigate complex part geometries and optimize robot paths while synchronizing movements and preventing collisions between one or more robots, parts and tooling. Finally, you have software engineered as brilliantly as the robots themselves.
This paradigm shift did not come easily. A major disruption had to take place first.
The Making of a Revolution
It began as an ambitious goal, to bring robotics to the masses. Especially to the small and midsize businesses that make up 90 percent of manufacturers, those that have yet to harness the full potential of robotic automation. This would be akin to how Microsoft BASIC helped propel the mainstream market for personal computers, and how modern-day apps simplify the use of everyday computing devices on our desks and in our pockets.
Robot programming can be complicated. Complexities such as singularity, reach issues, joint limits, and collisions can trip up seasoned robot users just as well as novices.
The goal for Robotmaster V7 was to create the ultimate software interface to optimize the programming of robotic tasks. To create an intuitive tool that anybody could use, with or without robotics expertise. It would cater to process experts, to make robot programming easy and intuitive even for first-time robot users.
To make robots practical for the everyday manufacturer and still productive for sophisticated users with complex robotic cells, the development team at Hypertherm Robotic Software, makers of Robotmaster software, knew the architecture would require a significant change. The team would not be satisfied with just another iteration or update of their award-winning offline programming software. They would throw out everything they had built their 20-year reputation upon and start from scratch.
This is rare in the industrial software development world. Typically a developer will try to anticipate the industry's needs, and then make the least disruptive change to its software architecture. A group of out-of-box thinkers from Montreal would change the game - again.
The Robotmaster team made a pact not to rest on their laurels. But starting from scratch is hard. They had no idea where their journey would take them. It would take a lot of soul-searching and four years of intense development to fully realize their vision.
Robotmaster software was already renowned for its legendary ease of use. It was the platform's optimization tools that put Robotmaster on the map in 2008. By creating software that enabled users to visualize and optimize robot trajectories, the developers were able to help demystify robot programming. In 2013, Robotmaster won Robotics Business Review's Game Changer Award for outstanding achievement in robotics. In 2015, they made the list of CIOReview's 20 Most Promising Robotics Solution Providers.
Today, Robotmaster software is running on robots drilling airplane fuselages at Boeing and Airbus, polishing automotive dies at Daimler, and adding value to myriad processes at family-owned job shops around the world. The developers knew the future still held far more promise.
Like other leading robotic offline programming tools of the day, the platform was built on early machining ideals and piggybacked on CAD/CAM software. This architecture assumed a basic understanding of robotics and CAD/CAM tools. It would take a major disruptive change to make robotics practical for more users.
Robotmaster founder Chahe Bakmazjian and lead researcher Waseem Khan come from similar backgrounds. They are both hardcore mechanical engineers who share a passion for programming. Together with their team, they watched thousands of hours of video footage on robotic applications, studying the different scenarios and trying to understand all the different ways robots are currently used and may be used in the future. Engineers call this an exhaustive search.
"We had one chance to get it right," says Bakmazjian. "We owed it to ourselves to leave no stone unturned."
The Robotmaster team found that the future is increasingly populated with multi-robot cells, where the robots are performing more than one type of task. It's often a combination of processes, including material removal, welding and polishing. Whereas their current software supported one robot for one task, new robot programming software would need to support what the creators refer to as "any number of anything." It would need to support more than one robot, more than one tooling and process, in multiple types of settings, and with any number of tasks.
"We knew to take this leap, to go from one robot or process to any number of variations, we needed a whole new architecture," says Bakmazjian.
Until then, robot programming software was created from a purely robotics point of view. The Robotmaster team would instead focus their attention on the user's perspective.
"The bigger picture that many were missing is that if I am a shop floor person, I'm least concerned about the details of the robot. I'm more concerned about the task," explains Khan. "The robot just happens to be a way to do it. That's how we came up with this idea of task-based programming for Robotmaster V7. We're focused on what the end user would like to do."
The Robotmaster team put their awards on the shelf and never looked back. They focused on the user and neatly categorized all the different scenarios they were seeing in the videos until they had a good idea of the framework for the task-based approach. A revolution in robot programming began to take shape.
"What we did with Robotmaster V7 was very costly and disruptive," says Bakmazjian. "We were starting from a clean slate and foreseeing everything that we hear people telling us they want to do with robots, we were going to create a brand-new architecture and rewrite the software line by line."
What they saw before them was daunting. They understood that a new architecture meant they needed a new team.
Bakmazjian and Khan had been coding since the early days of computers, but neither were trained in software engineering. The existing Robotmaster team largely comprised mechanical and electrical engineers. Their vision for the new software would require other disciplines in order to create the user-centric interface integral to the new task-based programming solution.
One-Click Ease of Use
The Robotmaster team hails from one of the most technology advanced regions in the world. Montreal is ranked in the top 25 high-tech cities according to Business Insider. The city has a regional specialty in computer systems design and software engineering. Couple that with this tech town's video gaming hub, home to Ubisoft, best known for top-seller Assassin's Creed, and you have a deep talent pool. Montreal attracts the best minds.
"We needed an influx of new knowledge, know-how and a new way of doing things," says Bakmazjian. "We knew how to take CAD/CAM data and do the kinematics, robotics and the error resolution. That was our expertise. Over the last five years, we've been adding other disciplines to our team, including experts in mathematical optimization who understand AI and deep machine learning. We found simulation and game experts who were very passionate about user interaction and wanted to apply their skills to the industrial space."
An intuitive user interface is critical to the one-click ease of Robotmaster V7 software. Even the onscreen menus are designed for the non-technical user in mind. CAD/CAM jargon is replaced with terms anyone can understand. With a CAD model of a part on the screen, you can simply hover the cursor close to an edge. The software understands what you want to do and displays all the relevant choices. The robot path is created with one click.
To round out their team, Robotmaster also sought out professional software engineers who had a passion for robotics to ensure the application's modularity, flexibility and quality control. The new architecture is a reflection of this multidisciplinary team that learned how to respect each other's disciplines and work together in an agile manner.
Working in three-week sprints over a two-year period, the development team built a flexible framework that allows for additional modules to be released over time. The initial Robotmaster V7 software release will allow for welding and contouring, including trimming, cutting and deburring. Subsequent modules will enable additional tasks, including assembly, surfacing, 3D milling, additive manufacturing and inspection.
"The framework allows additional modules to integrate seamlessly within the application," explains Khan. "We can actually inject menu options or items within the application without giving an impression that this is an extension. There's a coordinated look, feel and workflow."
Designing software that is intuitive for first-time robot users, but still remains flexible enough to manage more complex processes and scenarios, is a challenging endeavor. When developers try to make software flexible enough to easily change features and add functionality, they often sacrifice robustness. The software becomes buggy. With Robotmaster V7, the multidisciplinary team was able to create a balanced product that achieves flexibility and maintains robustness.
"We have built a platform that takes what needs to be done and maps it to the robotics domain automatically, so the end user is relieved of the minute details," says Khan. "That changed the whole paradigm. We needed to build from the ground up to make sure that the whole architecture could support this new concept.
"The point is not programming the robot," he adds. "The point is programming the task and automating the process of programming the robot."
Only with this new software architecture is Robotmaster V7 able to exploit the full capabilities of robots, to maximize their flexibility and configurability for a variety of tasks. User-centric, task-based programming will propel Robotmaster V7 software into the future. Subsequent software releases will add capabilities for programming multi-robot cells and seven-axis robots. Future additions will incorporate Industry 4.0 capability. Software bridges will allow existing users of Robotmaster software to leverage their own CAD/CAM tool of choice, or take advantage of the integrated CAD/CAM functionality of Robotmaster V7.
To bring robotics to the masses, robots need to be easier to use. They need to be practical for SMEs and large multinationals alike. Who better to help democratize robot programming for the masses than the company that first demystified robot programming nearly a decade ago? The revolution has begun.
Robotmaster software, part of the Hypertherm family, helps manufacturers to maximize their productivity. The company's leading offline robot programming software provides quick, easy, and powerful programming tools for multiple applications, saving time and money while maximizing return on investment. Intercam SA is a distributor of Robotmaster in the European and Asian markets.