How robots are making small industries more competitive.
Chief Operating Officer, Comau Robotics
Bringing intelligent robotics to the market means combining ease of use with advanced performance.
When did you join Comau?
I joined Comau in 2011 as the Managing Director for Comau Germany, and became the COO of the Robotics Business Unit in 2013. I’m also a member of the Comau Executive Committee. Having spent most of my career living and working around the world, including Germany, Italy, Sweden, Thailand and the USA, I now enjoy splitting my time between Germany and Italy.
What was your first impression of the Comau team?
More than by the Comau team, I was struck by the size and globality of the organization itself.
During its forty plus years, Comau has expanded all over the world in terms of both market penetration and local presence. When I was brought aboard to manage the German market, I quickly realized how solid the global network really is. More importantly perhaps, I was impressed by Comau’s steadfast commitment to evolving its dynamic, multinational presence. It’s not enough to be a leader; Comau wants to lead the future of automation. It’s exciting to be part of such a pioneering vision.
In terms of the team, Comau has developed a culture of its own that is different from anything I’ve ever experienced. The company refers to this as the culture of automation. I see it as the culture of team, where significant personal investment – in terms of time, commitment and passion – is put into tackling obstacles and finding the best possible solution for the situation at hand. This powerful way of working with clients spans cultures, countries and even companies.
Let’s talk robotics. What can you tell us about your organization?
It’s well-known that Comau began as a consortium of machining companies focused on the automotive industry. Our first robots were developed in the late 1970s and immediately put to work on the factory floor. Today, Comau robots, recognized for their precision and state-of-the-art performance, continue to play an integral role in the future of global manufacturing.
The automotive industry relies heavily on our robotics because of their advanced capabilities and not only their extreme precision. In this sector, Comau’s robots are very well positioned, performing everything from arc welding and spot welding to plasma cutting, gluing, foundry, handling, stud insertion and cosmetic hemming/seaming.
Over the last several years the versatility of our robots has helped us expand into new General Industry sectors like consumer products, electronics and even general industry applications including packaging and Food&Beverage. These changes are not without significant effort on our part. We are constantly looking for ways to improve our offer and better respond to the existing and future needs of the market.
Where do you see the future of industrial robotics heading?
The market for industrial robots has grown about three times in twenty years – from €65k in 1995 to over €229k in 2014. Yet I believe that we’re going to start to see a different type of market in the future. We’re going to see different machines working differently with humans, and manufacturing in a different way.
The key drivers of these changes are safety, the emerging role of cooperative robots, dual arm robots, mobility robots, and more. These are the areas where traditional robots are going to be replaced. And if we add to this scenario the Internet of Things, which is also known as industry 4.0 or smart factories, these same industrial robots will become increasingly connected to the entire manufacturing operation. The future lies in connecting everything to the internet, making sure the data is available, transferring this data, connecting, viewing, using it, making smart manufacturing a reality.
How are you addressing the concept of safety?
Safe robotics is extremely important and Comau is dedicating significant resources to advancing our ability to deliver safe, collaborative industrial automation solutions. Our ROBOSafe technology, for example, uses redundant controls to track the exact position of the robot at any moment, thereby certifying its entire range of action. When combined with external security sensors that are connected to the control unit of the robot, we are able to detect and react to a human presence in the cell. When the operator approaches, the sensors will slow or stop the movement of the robot. The cycle is automatically resumed when the operator leaves the area.
Clearly, the system helps avoid useless downtimes, but it also allows us to build more compact cells that are designed taking the actual work area of the robot into consideration rather than the potential overall area. Of course our SAFE robotics investments are not limited to this area, as we are also strongly focused on cooperative robots able to interact with human beings.
What about small businesses and robotics?
Until recently, most robotic solutions didn’t have the flexibility or agility to address the specific needs of SMEs (Small to Medium Enterprises) and as a result, SMEs tended to have a low overall awareness of how and where automation could fit into their business models. Even if the SME inherently understood that process improvements could boost productivity, robotics were not likely to be considered for two primary reasons: limited willingness to invest unless the Return on Investment was very short, and limited skills for designing, programming and operating a robotic cell.
To address these issues, Comau has developed a new generation of agile, task-oriented robotics able to handle both small and large loads. What this means is that our robots can manipulate small, lightweight objects as easily as they can handle heavier materials – from 3 to 650 kg – with maximum acceleration up to 5G. Racer999 and Racer3 are two examples of this strategy.
More importantly, we believe the driving factors for robotic systems within the SME environment are investment reduction, safety, efficiency, repeatability and accuracy, high process quality, flexibility and easy integration (which can be translated as ease of use and plug & play). As a company, we are working very hard to design solutions around these key factors.
Does automation make sense in a small industry?
We think so, which is one of the reasons why Comau is investing heavily and working with top institutions and EU Research Programs, to develop profitable and intelligent robotic solutions that are specifically designed for the SME market. This means combining the high productivity, consistent quality and absolute accuracy of robot-based industrial automation with the flexible, Customer-focused production methods of the SME. Under this framework, we are able to help automate inbound logistics (reading and sorting, picking), outbound logistics (palletizing and handling), and manufacturing operations (polishing and grinding, die-casting, arc welding and even hazardous operations).
Would you give us an interesting example of how this works?
Shoes. Few people realize that there are more than 28 highly specialized manual operations to make every single shoe. And yet we’ve recently developed a robotic solution to automate shoe production.
The complexity of the shoe making process is noteworthy, and is usually done by master craftsmen. To give you an idea of how even artisan techniques can be automated, our solution – developed within the framework of an international consortium of which Comau is a leading partner – uses a robotic cell for part of the work cycle. The robotic cell executes different operations in sequence. It moves the shoes from the conveyor belt, it positions them on the shoe upper, it performs the cleaning, polishing and finishing tasks, and it also performs other types of activities which would be demanding and potentially dangerous for humans, such as spraying and painting.
The automated system ensures total compatibility between man and machinery – meaning, the sensitivity and the manipulative skills are almost identical. In this way, the robot can detect the position of the objects, manipulate the components of the shoe using the correct amount of force, and at the end of the process, place the shoes in the final package. It’s just one example, but demonstrates that agile robotics combined with advanced vision sensors are now able to add value to largely manual operations.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
In closing I want to emphasize the importance of simplifying the use of robots. The man-machine interface should be more intuitive, similar to what Apple did with the iPhone. Almost anyone can use a smartphone without ever reading the instruction manual. We are working hard to make even the most complex systems easier to use, which will benefit the Customer in terms of a shorter learning curve and allow us to offer application-specific training rather than generic “how to use a robot” training.
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