The most important robotics trends: More than just buzzwords

  • Robotics
Requirements for robots are undergoing dramatic changes. Mass production is being abandoned more and more in favor of small batch sizes, and customizing for individual needs is the order of the day. Automation in areas previously dominated by manual work as well as the collaboration between humans and robots—these are the watchwords in robotics today.

In our interview with drag&bot co-founder Martin Naumann, we explore some robotics buzzwords and talk about the role that drag&bot is playing within the KEBA Group.

You can also find the interview as part of the podcast (in German) "5-Minuten Automatisierung" on various streaming platforms:

drag&bot has been part of the KEBA Group since November 2021: What does the integration mean for drag&bot and what is being driven forward in terms of content?

Gabriel: drag&bot is now an integral part of KEBA, and we cooperate very closely. drag&bot allows KEBA to expand its capability in the robotics segment. In the medium term, drag&bot components will also be added to the Kemro X hardware and software platform.

We have just now defined our first joint projects based on a voice-of-the-customer approach. We are refining these projects now and will present them at the SPS 2022 trade show.

Naumann: For drag&bot, this step has clearly been a positive development because it is enabling us to improve our product significantly.

drag&bot is a software solution for the simple operation and programming of industrial robots. It focuses on integrating, operating, and programming robots from a broad range of manufacturers as well as including grippers and cameras via a single graphical user interface. This allows for the quick implementation of robotics solutions without requiring any expert knowledge.

However, so far we’ve been missing functionalities such as a PLC connection, system visualization, and safety engineering. These are exactly the features provided by the Kemro X suite, resulting in a very complete and consistent solution that can be seamlessly integrated.

Martin Naumann, Co-founder drag&bot
Martin Naumann, Co-founder drag&bot

The new generation of robots is much easier to integrate. The first buzzword that we hear all the time is “easy-to-use”—because ultimately, programming is one of the issues. This includes concepts such as no-code, low-code, and teach-in. Who really needs “easy-to-use”?

Naumann: Ultimately, all manufacturing companies who need flexibility in production but also need greater efficiency due to competitive pressure and price pressure and therefore need to turn to automation.

Classic automation works very well for large production quantities where products and variants remain unchanged for long periods of time. In other words, for scenarios where an automation solution is put into operation and then left running for a very long time without changing anything.

But with the new “mass customization” trend of small quantities and many variants made in particular by smaller companies, the automation system must be adjusted frequently. But there is a shortage of experts, who are needed to do it the classic way.

For this reason, new methods are needed. The “easy-to-use” approach enables the personnel at the manufacturing companies themselves to modify robotics solutions and put them into operation.

How can those experts who used to do these things be replaced? How is that going to work?

Naumann: It is made possible by a graphical user interface for the operation and programming of the robot. Programming is no longer actual programming in the sense of “writing code”. It is about dragging and dropping functions onto processes in a graphical environment and configuring parameters using simple graphical wizards.

The parameters for a movement, for example, can be configured by “teaching” point by point. Simple interfaces are then used to add other necessary details such as the speed and trajectory of the robot. And so, step by step the user can define a robot movement that the robot will be able to perform, without having to write a single line of code. It is not necessary to understand the robot interface, either. All work is done through a web-based graphical user interface—this is what “easy-to-use” means.

Let’s talk about current buzzwords that are good indicators of the trends in the world of robotics. “Easy-to-use” is our first buzzword: how can users tell if a product they consider buying is really “easy to use”? How will they know that it will perform as promised?

Naumann: To find that out, users should test the graphical user interface and the interactions the robot will perform. Ideally, they should already have a use case in mind that the robot should perform.

They should run through the test case and verify whether the process really is simple. So, trying it out and becoming familiar with the system, that is the best approach.

An important note: the people who run through the test cases should be those users who will actually use the system later—in other words, production personnel.

So, the goal is to enable workers to control the robot and to adapt it according to changing conditions?

Naumann: That is correct. Selected personnel from production and maintenance and those in technical supervisory roles form the target group who can use our approach initially to adapt existing applications and after a certain learning curve also to put new applications into operation.

This is not just about prefabricated rigid robots that can be integrated, right? We are also talking about pickers or free-arm applications available on the market for which quick software solutions can be created using drag&bot, aren’t we?

Naumann: Exactly. This is exactly the benefit afforded by our integration into KEBA and Kemro X. It is now also possible to develop proprietary kinematics and to use them in drag&bot via the KEBA robot controller, making the solution space even larger and more flexible.

This means that we are meeting the needs of at least two target groups. On the one hand, the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) who wish to integrate robotics features into their machines; and on the other hand, industrial companies who are wary of an investment into a new industrial robot that would complement a production line—they are not sure if the investment pays off when it requires yet another expert user.

The next frequent buzzword—plug&play: what’s possible, and what isn’t? And in this context: AI in this robotics segment—what can companies do themselves, and in what scenarios do they need to bring in an expert?

Naumann: As a rule, drag&bot allows users to do a great deal themselves. However, we did focus on simpler applications because these are the very applications that can be adapted and put into operation by production personnel.

More complex applications are also possible. These are not created from scratch—rather, users only need to configure certain parameters and implement small adjustments to particular situations or conditions of the machine.

On principle, the drag&bot design can be expanded at any time. It is easy to write new drivers in order to integrate new hardware, robots, grippers, or cameras. It is also possible to integrate new software functions. Hence, integrating artificial intelligence functions from third parties is not a problem at all.

Easy operation and programming of robot solutions

In this context, we often also hear about “no-code”. But those who have the know-how should be able to program the robot themselves, shouldn't they?

Naumann: There are two separate levels here: for users from among the production staff, we are “no-code”.

For those users who commission new plants and who have more extensive know-how—such as OEMs who use drag&bot as part of their solutions, or system integrators—there are many options for extending drag&bot.

In this case, programming is required, for example in Python (19.52) or C++, for which we provide open interfaces. Once the experts have programmed the new functions, these will in turn be made available as graphical function blocks to end users who can use them without having to do any programming.

For a truly efficient robotics application, the seamless integration into the overall system is the best solution. But how “seamless” can such integration really become?

Gabriel: KEBA has been making robot controllers for decades and offers support for a range of kinematics. This is an area in which KEBA truly excels—one of the reasons why KEBA is so popular with large OEMs.

The integration in the narrow sense is the piece of drag&bot software that is now integrated into the Kemro X platform. But when we think “integration”, we can take it a step further.

For more complex processes such as welding, a standard robot only takes you along “for the ride”: it is mostly very difficult to intervene in the process because these controllers do not have an open design.

The great benefit of working with KEBA is that by integrating everything, we are providing full access—including for OEMs who have in-depth knowledge of the processes. They know where they want to optimize things but so far, they have not had the possibilities to really achieve the optimal performance.

In my opinion, this is the gigantic added value of integration, also when it comes to engineering details such as real-time synchronization.

Christian Gabriel, KEBA Industrial Automation GmbH
Christian Gabriel, KEBA Industrial Automation GmbH
How does integration work in that case?

Naumann: There are two options. The first option is to take a standard robot from a well-known manufacturer and to integrate it with drag&bot. drag&bot offers many options, though ultimately the interface for adjusting the trajectories, movements, etc. of the standard robot is limited.

When that is no longer enough, customers can fall back on Kemro X and the robotics technology it contains, allowing them to connect their own robot controller and kinematics. All parameters that exist in the robot controller can then also be made available to drag&bot. If necessary, these can be passed through all the way to the user interface. Users can then make all types of adjustments and can shape the process for optimal execution.

How long does it take to integrate a standard robot with Kemro X and drag&bot?

Naumann: Our experience has shown that it takes less than an hour to put a standard robot into operation.

And a single interface is used for the integration of all robots?

Naumann: That is correct, a single user interface for all robots. Developing your own kinematics requires a little more effort: in this case the robot controller also needs to be adapted and configured, drives need to be configured, and so on.

Scalability, often packaged with interchangeability or modularity, is another robotics buzzword. Do increasing requirements force customers to reinvent or grow the robot program? Or do they need to redevelop everything from scratch if they switch from one robot manufacturer to another?

Naumann: That’s several issues in one question. Increasing requirements aren’t a problem at all. But that is fairly easy to handle even without drag&bot.

If you have one manufacturer’s robot controller, it allows you to use several kinematics, those which the manufacturer has included with the robot controller. In this sense, the programs as fully transferable.

However, if you switch between robots from different manufacturers, it’s a whole different picture. Without drag&bot you really need to recreate the programs from scratch. Because each robot manufacturer has developed their own robot programming language, without any interchangeability—and so, you are back at square one.

With drag&bot that doesn’t happen, because this solution supports the uniform operation of all robots via a single user interface. This means that a robot program created in drag&bot can be transferred to any other supported robot type as the exact equivalent, without the need to write anything new. Perhaps a few details need to be adjusted in the case of special functions only supported by a specific robot.

How easy is retooling and tool adjustment from a programming perspective?

Naumann: That is really easy. There are functions that tell the program when a different tool is being used. For the mechanical part, the tool change must either be performed by an automatic tool changer or manually.

It this step is automated—i. e. through the use of a tool changer and the underlying geometries—it will be included directly in the software. The software can then update the gripping points, for example, if grippers of different sizes are swapped.

What experiences and user feedback have you had regarding the integration on the one hand, and regarding drag&bot as middleware for different robot manufacturers on the other hand?

Naumann: We conducted a study with a major automotive supplier.

We defined three user groups: the first group included robotics experts, the second group included production personnel with a strong technical background, and the third group included production personnel with very little technical background.

The task to solve was a simple screw application: pick up a screw from a defined position, then screw it into a component in order to join two parts.

Then we compared the approach that was used to create the application: a) the classic teach panel of an industrial robot, or b) drag&bot. The first group, the robotics experts, were able to do it using either method. But using drag&bot, they managed to do it five times faster.

With the classic method, they needed 30 minutes. With drag&bot, they only needed six minutes. This shows that while drag&bot does not necessarily enable the experts to do more things, it enables them to do things faster. Regarding the production personnel: neither group, with or without a technical background, managed to program the screw application using the classic approach. With drag&bot, both groups were able to do it. The important message is this: they managed to do it. This means that production personnel are being enabled to use robots, which they couldn’t have done using the classic method.

The number of people with specialized know-how is dwindling. Do such examples provide an incentive for employees to expand their skill set?

Naumann: Once these new users have their first experience of success, they suddenly start enjoying the task, they continue to practice their newfound skills and suddenly, new horizons open up.

Then there is also the monetary aspect: without drag&bot, an outside expert would need to be hired for such purposes. But firstly, such people are not always available at short notice, and secondly, experts cost money. And there is a waiting time until the modification has been implemented.

This can signify machine downtimes or manual work even though in principle, a robot is available to do the work. drag&bot enables a company’s own production personnel to implement modifications immediately. This means that the system can be used for new product variants or tasks without delay.

drag&bot is a powerful extension for Kemro X. What else can we expect for the near future?

Gabriel: KEBA will focus on driving forward—together with its customers—the development of technologies needed for simple robotics solutions for individual applications and the optimization of process quality.

Another important item on the roadmap is data: how to maximize robot accuracy in the long term? In more general terms: what benefits can be extracted from data?

And what will be “next big thing” for drag&bot? What is the vision of drag&bot?

Naumann: Right now, we are very busy with the deep integration of our products into the Kemro X automation platform. We are working on making it possible to use drag&bot on KEBA operating panels and to use the panel keys to teach and jog robots directly.

We will deepen our integration primarily into KEBA robotics in order to support a host of new functions because we now have access to these interfaces and functions that we don’t have for any other robot manufacturer.

In addition, we want to make our graphical user interface even more intuitive and easier to use in order to enable an even larger target group to work with robots. Or, from the perspective of OEMs, to enable OEMs to provide solutions where OEM customers can customize solutions and use the robotics. And the interface of robot visualization and system visualization is another area where more integration could happen in order to blend these two into one. We have a lot of ideas.

Our vision: drag&bot should make operating a robot as easy as using a smartphone. Ultimately, robots should be as flexible to use for recurring production tasks as cordless screwdrivers are today.

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