Don’t Fear the Robot: Humatics, Eckhart Push Factory Automation Tech

The state of American manufacturing has become an increasingly hot topic of conversation since the 2016 presidential election laid bare the discontent felt by workers and business owners alike.

However, companies like Algonac, MI-based Eckhart and Cambridge, MA-based Humatics see an opportunity to reinvigorate American manufacturing through so-called “Industry 4.0” technologies—automated, connected, and collaborative tools that allow humans and robots to work side-by-side in leaner, more flexible “smart” factories.

Humatics, which is advancing “microlocation” tech originally developed at MIT, is today unveiling its spatial intelligence platform at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. Eckhart, a Humatics partner that sells manufacturing technologies and services, and ZPMC, another Humatics sales partner, plan to integrate the Humatics platform—which combines sensors and software—into their existing and future automated guided vehicle (AGV) systems for factories.

The spatial intelligence platform and its accompanying AGVs mark the latest attempt to improve the mobility and sophistication of industrial robots, which have received increased investment in recent years. What’s notable here, Eckhart and Humatics say, is the industrial robots can move around the factory floor via radio-frequency beacons and mobile sensors rather than being constrained to a fixed route guided by magnetic tape.

In addition, the AGVs can change routes on the fly without the need to reconfigure any infrastructure and can also travel seamlessly between indoor and outdoor environments with centimeter- and millimeter-scale accuracy, the companies say. (The Humatics centimeter-scale systems are commercially available as of today; the millimeter-scale systems are currently being piloted and are expected to launch by the end of 2019, the company says.)

Eckhart CEO Andy Storm describes his 325-person company as a provider of advanced manufacturing solutions to the largest industrial companies in the world, including John Deere, Mercedes, and Procter & Gamble. He says that as mobility technologies that are primarily being built for the auto industry mature, they also have the potential to make manufacturing more efficient.

“Traditional conveyance operations can’t keep up with the rate of change from end customers, so manufacturers are looking for more flexible and automated systems,” Storm says. “We’ve known the demand has existed for years, and many of our customers have explored systems like LiDAR (light detection and ranging) but have backed away due to the cost and complexity. The Humatics solution is very easy to adopt and integrate into existing systems.”

By using radio-frequency beacons, Humatics says it can pinpoint multiple, moving targets whose locations are broadcast via transponder. The transponders can be networked together—strung throughout a factory, for example, or mounted on an autonomous vehicle—to provide more precise positioning at what Mindell says is a fraction of the cost of LiDAR and other complex visioning systems.

Mindell says his company’s acquisition of 5D Robotics and its subsidiary, Time Domain, earlier this year was “essential” to accelerating the company’s commercialization plans. He also says the needs of Eckhart’s manufacturing customers have also informed the way Humatics has built its products and the company’s decision to enter the commercial market via industrial applications.

“We see the industrial market as enormous and very exciting,” Mindell says. “We’re also extremely happy to contribute to the revitalization of manufacturing as an American industry. We don’t see our platform as scary take-my-job technology, but something that will allow robots to collaborate in human environments. It’s essential that this technology is deployed in a way that is compatible with people.”

In fact, Mindell predicts an imminent relocation of some manufacturing operations from Asia back to the U.S., and he’s proud of the role Humatics might play in facilitating that relocation.

“We collaborate with a lot of companies in the Midwest, and technology is starting to move from the coasts to the heartland,” he adds. “That’s a very good thing for the country. One of the main ways Humatics wants to contribute is by tying people and technology together.”

American companies moving their offshore manufacturing businesses back to the U.S. is a trend that Pavan Muzumdar, chief operating officer at Automation Alley, has also seen over the past two or three years. He says that as countries with a significant manufacturing footprint, like China, experience an increase in the standard of living, the cost of labor goes up and the complexities of having an offshore operation seem less desirable. By embracing advanced manufacturing and innovations in industrial tech, American companies can become more productive and competitive, he says.

“[The U.S.] is very good at the physical part of manufacturing—at logistics, at making things consistently,” Muzumdar says. But those attributes and skills become less important in a digital world, he says, which is about change, trial and error, and iteration. “Manufacturers that are good at the physical by nature have cultural impediments to taking on a digital view of the world. But digital technologies bring about new business models, and to be competitive, the adoption of Industry 4.0 is critical. It’s not either/or. Manufacturers will have to continue to be good at the physical while overlaying the digital.”

Manufacturing and robotics are often rigid industries, Mindell says, so anything that makes them better able to respond to technological and environmental change is good for business. “The processes are changing all the time even if the core product stays the same,” he points out.

Above all, Storm says, Eckhart hopes to accelerate the adoption of advanced industrial systems like the Humatics platform and “unleash the chains that have bound the capabilities” of the American manufacturing and industrial sectors.

“Workers in the Midwest are sometime fearful of artificial intelligence and Industry 4.0, but fundamental parts of our lives are starting to change” as a result of these technologies, Storm says. “The reason to accelerate Industry 4.0 is to continue to help manufacturers manage chaos and variability; we can build things safer and with higher quality. If we can help our customers to better understand how to utilize automated tools, we can relocate employees to higher-value jobs. Let the collaborative robots handle mind-numbing tasks—we can use technology to plug lower-skill roles.”

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