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Rocking The RUC

RoboPro Editor Neil Martin is invited to RUC2018, a conference which is now staged every year by Canadian company Robotiq, which builds end-effectors and software for collaborate robots (cobots). And he’s not disappointed with what he sees


I’ve been to quite a few company conferences, some too tedious to recall here and I’m too polite anyway, but cobot gripper company Robotiq has set a very high bar with what was only its
third user conference.

Early autumn is now the time for Robotiq to welcome over 200 customers and partners in the form of engineers, distributors and end-users, to the City of its base, the French-speaking Quebec, in eastern Canada.

And hashtag RUC2018, or as the management team are always happy to shout out ‘RUC’ (spoken as ‘ROCK’), is an event that believes in working hard to get audience participation. So much so, that the technically minded guests get a chance to prove their prowess. I was an observer, so I was not encouraged to touch the equipment, which is a good thing, given I struggle to change a lightbulb.

Robotiq is no newcomer to the market, it was first founded in 2008 by Samuel Bouchard (CEO), Jean-Philippe Jobin (CTO) and Vincent Duchaine (who has no operational role within the company).

Robotiq is a developer and manufacturer of sophisticated grippers, or to be more precise, end-of-arm tools that feature heavily on collaborative robots. You are most likely to see them on the end of Universal Robot (UR) arms.

Sponsor

UR sponsor the event (providing around 60 machines for the challenge) and work closely with Robotiq, using some of the Canadian company’s software in their own solutions. Which perhaps explains why Esben Ostergaard, the UR Chief Technical Officer, was happily there as an honoured guest and speaker. And he was there for the full three days of the conference, which
also signifies the importance that UR attach to Robotiq.

Via a global network of distributors located throughout 50 countries, Robotiq’s goal is to make automation easy, fast and accessible to manufacturers and producers without the need of extensive technical knowledge.

Principal products are flexible electric robot grippers, force-torque sensor, vision systems, real-time robot monitoring software and ready-to-use, downloadable robotic programs. The main feature of all the products is to bring the senses of touch and vision to robots. The focus is on human-robot collaboration and software applications to accelerate robot projects, and optimize
robot performance.

Complete solution

The company like to see themselves as the complete solution, which is why they ask on their website: “What do you want to automate today?”

They go on to state that “We free human hands from repetitive tasks” which sums up the position of many collaborative robot companies, that they are there to help humans with boring and repetitive tasks, and not just replace them.

The company believes that “…manufacturers struggle to put robots to work in their factory because it’s still too costly and too complicated. Our tools and know-how simplify collaborative robot applications, so factories can start production faster.”

Robotiq is still independently owned by its founders and a small number of shareholders. Which of course, begs the question, for how much longer will they remain independent?

How many corporate financiers will have run the slide rule over this company? But, that’s not a question for this article!

Conference

The conference is spread over three days and for the first time, took place this year in the charming drill-hall of one of the oldest Francophone regiments in Canada.

It was first built in 1887 as a Gothic Revival drill hall for the infantry regiment known as Les Voltigeurs de Québec. It was expanded in 1913 and became a key landmark of Old Quebec.

Robotiq were keen to point out that they were the first users since a fire had almost destroyed the building in 2008. It took four years to kick-off a restoration project at a cost of over $100m, but the building is now back to its former glory and status. And it’s an impressive venue for any conference, especially one which represents such a dynamic new industry.

To give you a sense of the size of the place, it can accommodate up to 1,300 people and Robotiq used two of the larger rooms, plus the foyer area. This made for a spacious layout for the talks, the challenge (which actually filled the biggest room) and the various workshops that were held.

Difference

The difference between last year’s RUC and this one was highlighted by Karine Simard, VP Sales and Marketing, who gave the Welcome Note.

She recalled how at last year’s event “…things were a bit tight; those of you in the robot room will remember we were brushing elbows together.”

She also pointed out, tongue firmly in cheek, that although Robotiq like to set the world on fire at their conference, she hoped, given the venue’s history, it wouldn’t be taken literally.

After Karine, the main warmup man was the ever-present Jeff Burnstein, President of A3 (the Association for Advancing Automation) and an automation evangelist. He spends his time travelling across the globe talking about automation and machine vision, and as he stepped up to the stage, I heard someone say, yes, you’ll like this, this guy is good.

Simple message

Jeff didn’t disappoint, pacing out an interesting presentation which he admitted he had given at a number of key events. But, he had a simple message: the market is in growth mode and the impact on jobs will not be as feared by those outside of the industry.

As an aside, in his introduction to his slideshow, he pointed out that A3 was the first in the world to hold a cobot conference, back in 2014.

He moved on to some market figures, which he pointed out were yet to be finalised. First up was the fact that in the worldwide industrial robotics market, 308,550 new robots were installed in 2017, a growth of 29% over 2016. Top applications was handling 47% and welding at 22%. The top industries using the robots were automotive at 33%, a growth of 21%, and electronics, up 27%.

The world’s five largest robotics markets are China, Republic of Korea, Japan, US and Germany. These five markets account for 71% of the global industrial robotics market.

China

China dominates and Jeff made this comment: “The big story in Asia is China. The world hasn’t ver seen the like of what’s going on in China in terms of how rapidly they have emerged as the leading robot user and now with aspirations to become a leading global robot supplier as well, fuelled by their Made in China 2025 programme which provides all sorts of government support for companies active in China.

“The story right now globally is China – do I think that is going to end anytime soon, not really.”

Jeff also noted the difficulty in estimating the size of the collaborative robot market, which is thought to be over 8000 units shipped globally by the end of last year, with revenues of $225m. By the end of 2020, it is expected that 40,000 units will have been shipped, with revenues of one billion. There are a wide range of forecasts and estimates, with some reckoning on a market size of over $12bn by 2023.

But, the point is, that whichever forecast is used, the figures are in healthy growth mode.

THE STORY RIGHT NOW GLOBALLY IS CHINA – DO I THINK THAT IS GOING TO END ANYTIME SOON, NOT REALLY

Key players

As for cobot suppliers, the key players are currently being added to with new entrants, including machines from Doosan, Kassow, Pilz and F&P.

Another point worth highlighting is that generally robotics is growing throughout the value chain. For example, in the industrial sector, a 15% growth per year is forecast through to 2020, and a market size of $23bn by 2020.

And investment trends seem to be going the way of cobots as well, as they want robots which are:

  • Mobile – able to navigate complex environments autonomously;
  • Dexterous – able to manipulate a variety of objects in varying orientations;
  • Smart – able to quickly process data and learn;
  • Intuitive – user interfaces and social interactions should be simple and friendly.
  • Jeff finished his presentation on a familiar theme for him and the wider industry: the impact of robots on human jobs. He stressed his association’s message which is:

    1. the inability to compete is the biggest threat to jobs, not automation;
    2. technology advances have always changed the nature of jobs;
    3. if we focus on our fears, we will miss the opportunities;
    4. the skills gap is real & requires our attention.

    He referenced McKinsey & Company which have said that the worst case scenario by 2030 is 800 million jobs displaced, yet 890 million jobs created. In fact, history has shown that the more robots that there are in operation, the more jobs are created. What’s more, by 2025 some 3.4 million manufacturing jobs will be needed and 1.4 million are expected to be filled, which leaves 2 million jobs left unfilled due to the skills gap.

    It’s a good message and one which resonates around the industry. How well that message is getting across to Main Street and the High Street remains to be seen.

    Esben Ostergaard

    As the CTO of Universal Robots, Esben Ostergaard has earned his stripes when it comes to talking about cobots, and he gave his thoughts in a Q&A format session with Robotiq CEO Samuel Bouchard.

    Part of the Q&A focussed on the Universal Robots world tour of the new e-Series cobot.

    Esben admitted that they were a little worried about the launch, which has seen UR already visit automatica 2018 in Germany, before moving on to China and then Canada. But, he said that the reaction had been positive to the e-Series and their worry – that it looks pretty similar to their existing robots, so would anyone get it – was unfounded.

    Upgrade

    He made the point that UR was the first company to have a successful cobot in the market and all the features since the original machine have been included in the new e-Series. It represents, he said, an upgrade in all dimensions.

    He said: “What looks like a lot of small changes are in reality a lot of experience we built into the product; what we learnt from the market that we wanted to improve…people know where these improvements are coming from, and are very positive.”

    He added: “We were very lucky, we made a robot we thought the world needed, and we were very lucky and it turned out that we made a robot that got some traction and actually started selling worldwide, what we had was pretty good and we just try and improve it.”

    The package, as Esben referred to, was to offer a robot which was lightweight, heavily integrated, easily programmable and with in-built safety.

    Samuel Bouchard

    After Mark Kahwati of Universal Robots took the guests through the new e-Series in detail, it was the turn of Samuel to do his presentation and he focussed on the evolution of collaborative robots. His theme, and indeed the theme of the conference, was start production faster.

    He started by asking the conference attendees which one of the words was most important of the start production faster strapline, to which the answer was, in Samuel’s words: “It’s all about producing something, so production is the most important word, it’s about making something for our customers.”

    Production is at the core of its thinking for Robotiq, as well as its customers.

    Busy

    Which led to an observation from Samuel, that when you ask someone in this industry if they are busy, the question you usually always get back is, yes, we’re very busy.

    Samuel: “Everyone is running around in this industry. We are making progress, but we believe we could be moving faster altogether.”

    He referred back to Jeff’s market figures and said he believed in the estimates, mostly because there is a pressing need for robots to fill the skills gaps, as many young people are not interested in working in certain industries anymore.

    And he had this thought which will delight robot sales people: “Most companies who will benefit from cobots haven’t even started yet; haven’t even started with their first robot yet. I have yet to see a factory which would not benefit from more robots.”

    Start

    He made the point that we are still at the start of the growth curve, but that the real issue and the real challenge for the industry, is whether the demand be fulfilled. Samuel also went on to outline a number of new product features, including the Insights Remote Access and Force CoPilot.

    He joked that the Insights Remote Access, which allows an off-site engineer remote access to the gripper, started out life as the CobotPhone to mimic the BatPhone – the point being that for a cobot operator, help is now always on hand and quickly.

    Remote technical help allows an operator to restart production faster, without delay, and that is one of the key building blocks of the Robotiq approach with the objective of making robots more capable and easier to use.

    Force Copilot

    Samuel also took the audience through the basics of Force Copilot, an intuitive software developed to operate Universal Robots e-Series’ embedded force torque sensor. It accelerates the programming of a whole host of applications, including part insertion and surface finding.

    Force Copilot’s sensing functions increase flexibility and reliability in machine-tending, assembly, finishing, and pick-and-place applications. A suite of setup tools allows the user to hand-guide the robot on complex trajectories.

    The company demonstrated how the software makes it easy to place objects precisely in jigs, trays, and chucks, and it facilitates assembly applications through its alignment, indexing, and insertion functions. The intuitive interface also unlocks finishing applications, with adjustable adaptive compliance and constant force for all robot axes.

    Samuel explained: “We want to free every production line operator in the world from repetitive manual tasks. With Force Copilot, we are making complex robot-movement programming accessible to anyone. Force Copilot works s the human operator’s guide, helping program the robot quickly and easily. We’re proud to see the next step of the human-robot collaboration take shape.”

    Jean-Philippe Jobin

    The presentations finished off with Jean-Philippe Jobin, CTO of Robotiq, taking the audience through the company’s latest products and innovations, including the fact that the company is most definitely e-Series ready.

    One focus for Jean-Philippe was Hand-e, the new collaborative gripper and he outlined its principle features:

  • highly precise and ridgid;
  • ergonomic shape for hand-guiding;
  • low maintenance and durable design;
  • sealed casing.
  • He described it as the best in class for cobot grippers, a single line-up for all an end-user’s applications.

    Jean-Philippe had wrapped up what was a fascinating first day. Attention then switched to the technical challenge, which took up the whole of the second day of the conference, and some of third as well.

    The RUC challenge

    Now it would be easy to call this a geek fest, especially for someone like me, who can only stand-by and look on with awe at how these people, and it was good to see, a fair sprinkling of women, cope with an rray of Universal Robots, Robotiq grippers, conveyer belts and assorted bits and pieces, and given a problem to solve. The best solution wins the coveted prize and this is taken very seriously, over a period of 24 hours.

    UR is omnipresent and that’s not only because they sponsored the event, but because they are the current dominant force in collaborative robots today. The Odense furnace has sold over 25,000 units since it started.

    One wag pointed out that there were more UR machines in the conference venue (each of the ten teams had about six machines to play with) than in most factories. But, it gives you sense of the effort that Robotiq had gone to create a conference that was not just about the senior management preening on stage and indulging in a bout of back-slapping.

    The Apprentice

    The start of the competition had the air of an episode of The Apprentice, minus Mr Donald Trump, or Sir Alan Sugar, but the intensity was the same. The contestants were split into ten teams of around a dozen people in each and they could have done with some of The Apprentice naming ideas. Team Ten came up with the snappy title of the New Advanced Forward Thinking Applications Company (or NAFTAC for short). That’s one not to be registered!

    A leader quickly came to the fore and off they went, solving a challenge which required the use the robots, grippers and conveyors to get products from point A to B, via a series of mini manoeuvres. Out came the magic marker pens and ideas began to appear on the numerous white boards throughout the room.

    Bear in mind this was a 24-hour challenge, so a number of the contestants did work through the whole night – respect to them.

    I felt like a spare part and needless to say, wasn’t there for the whole period. It was pretty impressive though and you could hear the collective thinking hum throughout the hall.

    Achieved

    As the challenge closed at 9am on the third day, each of the teams gave a quick presentation as to what they had achieved. The points were totted up (it was a fairly complex affair, with points being awarded throughout the challenge) and eventually a winner was proclaimed. Team 10 (remember them, NAFTAC) got a special mention for the first team to produce something, but it was Team 8 who eventually proved the winner, not least because they were the only team who got their line working just before the clock stopped. So, as well as performing strongly throughout the challenge, they did complete the task which, as most of the contenders agreed, was very hard to complete and harder than the year before.

    The members of Team 10 were: Diego González, Mathieu Poupart, Louis Thebault, Jorge Ruitina, Sebastien Blanchette, Enric Vila, Raphael Calado, Alex Paré, Juan José Coronado, Nicolas Bouhet, William Champagne, Aitor Fernendez García and Cesar Gonzalvo.

    Team Six deserve a special mention, as the female spokesperson set out her own challenge to the contenders, to next time bring a female colleague along with them. “Convince her that she can do it.” Well said I thought.

    Technical workshops

    Alongside the factory challenge were technical and sales workshops. The latter seemed quite intense affairs in which a judging panel poured scorn onto the efforts of people selling a cobot solution to a pretend client (Robotiq staff). From the little I saw of these, they appeared quite nervous, selling within a time limit in front of a crowd of fellow sales people. I wouldn’t do it, so fair play to them.

    A goodbye speech from Samuel and that was it, the RUC 2018 had come to a very successful conclusion.

    The next challenge was getting to the airport whilst in the middle of a UCI professional cycling event which meant that the roads around the venue and the host hotels were closed to vehicles, and taxis. That meant a challenge to find a taxi and not one which could be solved by a Universal Robot, or Robotiq gripper, yet.

    I solved the problem by watching the racing, in the glorious sunshine, surrounded by enthusiastic Canadian cycling fans – what could be better?

    Firsts

    It was a series of firsts for me: first time in Canada, first time in a Boeing Dreamliner, first time I watched Downsizing and the first time I’ve been offered a London Fog.

    Canada was a revelation. I’m embarrassed to say its my first time there. I’ve been to the US many times, but never Canada. I now know what I’ve missed. The country has an unhurried air to it and a sense of contentment.

    And the old part of Quebec reminded me of Pau in the South West of France, such was its charm and character. The main difference being that Pau doesn’t have huge cars driving around!

    The 787 Boeing Dreamliner was also an experience. I’ve watched with interest the development and deployment of this plane, a radical gear-change for Boeing with the large amount of carbon used in its manufacture and its fly-by wire technology originally favoured by its rival Airbus. With the window shades down and the entertainment system on the max, you are barely aware of the push-back, engines starting, or indeed take-off. I can’t figure it out, is that a good thing, or bad thing? I’m not a great flyer, but spent a lot of my career flying around, but it is better to be aware of what the plane is doing, or not? I’m not sure.

    Downsizing

    And talking about entertainment, what the hell was Downsizing all about? The cast looked about as embarrassed as me watching it. Poor Matt Damon! Was that one for the pension plan? It was a good start, I’ll give it that, but then it turned into some Tolkien-esque rubbish with a message about the planet with lots of well-meaning hippies. Maybe it wasn’t that bad, maybe the free wine and altitude swayed my judgement, but come on, that must be one for the cutting room floor. And don’t get me started on Red Sparrow – I had to keep turning that off, just in case someone else was watching me, watching it.

    Finally, I was offered a London Fog in a Starbucks in Quebec. I’d asked for a tea, an English breakfast tea, knowing that tea these days can also mean a hot fruit drink, or some green stuff that’s best avoided at all costs. The barista looked at me, noted the stupid accent (the rest of her customers spoke French) and asked if I meant a London Fog? What’s that I asked? Oh it’s Earl Grey tea, she replied, with a touch of vanilla and with warm milk. WTH? I can see why they called it a London Fog and that’s all I’m going to say. No, tea for me will always be, English breakfast blend, hot water and cold milk. That’s it, full stop. I don’t think I made any friends in that coffee shop.

    Last word

    I have to give a special thanks to the team at Robotiq, who were the perfect hosts and their young team were very professional throughout. You just know that this company is going to be a major player in the market over the coming years and one to watch.

    And also I have to mention the team at RARUK, who distribute Robotiq grippers in the UK and Eire, who I met at breakfast on the first day and who gave me a great insight into the market, from the sharp end. So thanks to Keith and Ian for being great company.

    I met many others and some will form the basis of forthcoming features for RoboPro 2018.

    But, as they say in the world of professional cycling, chapeau Robotiq – here’s to you for a great conference and setting a very high standard for others to follow.

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