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Aethon: walking the walk with the TUG


There are many companies which talk the talk in the robotics sector, but fewer which walk the walk, but Aethon is firmly one of those companies whose products belong in the latter category, and are making an impact right now.

Pittsburgh-based Aethon is best known for its TUG autonomous mobile robot which to date has surpassed five million deliveries per year at sites around the world.

Aethon automates material delivery using autonomous mobile robot technology. It has been in the market since 2004, making it one of the most experienced companies out there. The company’s family of TUG robots and enabling technologies serve the healthcare, manufacturing and hospitality markets.

CEO Aldo Zini said: “Part of what makes them unique is their ability to navigate unstructured environments and around people.  This is in contrast with traditional AGV technology which has typically required fixed infrastructure and had limited obstacle navigation capabilities.This makes the robot “smart” in the sense that it can respond to its environment to successfully complete its job.  In addition, our robots can automatically pickup and drop off loads – paving the way for complete automation of material movement. Fleets of robots can be managed centrally through a remote connection or over the cloud. This allows scalable and efficient support of a robotic fleet.”

In terms of its position in the market, it is the leader in the autonomous mobile robot market, having one of the largest install bases in the world. It started in hospitals, which is a very high bar for an autonomous mobile robot as it travels through the same hallways as patients, children, and care givers. This has translated well in industrial and manufacturing settings as well as the emerging hotel market.

Material movement in manufacturing is costly from a personnel, efficiency, and safety perspective and connecting existing islands of automation is on top of their agenda.  Management also highlighted the fact that Industry 4.0 seems to be driving an interest in greater levels of connectivity and automation. Emerging interest is coming from hotels, casinos and other large convention centre types of facilities.

Zini: “Hotels and their ilk are actually very similar to hospitals in their material movement challenges. You have a lot of front and back-of-house operations that require material handling. We are already well positioned from a technology standpoint and we think the technology will help hospitality organizations deliver more personal service – much like hospitals have been able to provide after deploying the TUG.”

Aethon was recently acquired by VT Systems, a subsidiary of ST Engineering, a global engineering company headquartered in Singapore.

As for the future at Aethon, Zini is optimistic: “It’s a blazingly bright future for robotics but one thing we have learned is that robotic technology works best when applied to specific challenges and when your customers and prospective customers are engaged in defining the solution. The technical gap between what is needed and what is available is closing so quickly that many robotic solutions will emerge.

“Our experience is that you have to think beyond the robot to innovate complete solutions, and even platforms. We’ve learned that it was not going to be enough to develop a robot that could navigate autonomously. We expended as much effort wrapping enabling technology, processes and experiences around the robot so it could be effectively deployed.

“If you limit your innovation at the robot itself our experience is that you will miss many deployment, system management or human-factors requirements of the customer.”