Motoman Expands Into Humanoid Robotics:  A Conversation with Craig Jenningsilluminating
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Mar 17, 2008
In this illuminating article, Craig Jennings, CEO of industrial robotics manufacturer Motoman, describes the company’s new humanoid robotic products.  Jennings explains how Motoman humanoid systems are extremely well suited for handling, manipulation and assembly-related tasks that require two hands, and that the market for such systems is huge and an alternative to offshore manufacturing.

Motoman manufactures industrial robots that weld, assemble, cut, and handle goods for manufacturers.  It also offers related process controls, positioning systems, welding equipment, and operating software. Motoman was founded in 1989 as a subsidiary of Yaskawa Electric America, (a maker of control products, AC servo motors and drives and inverters), which in turn is a unit of Yaskawa Electric Corp. of Japan, one of the world’s top manufacturers of industrial robots with nearly 200,000 installed worldwide.

Motoman provides robots and complete robotic automation for virtually every application and industry, with over 175 distinct robot models.  Founded in 1989, Motoman has continually gained market share and is now one of the largest robotic solution providers in North and South America with more than 28,000 robotic installations.

Craig Jennings, CEO of Motoman, recently took some time to talk about the company to John P. Desmond, Robotics Trends contributing editor ().

Robotics Trends Can you tell me about recent innovations in the Motoman robot product line?

Craig Jennings Our newest innovation of the last year is a humanoid robot, specifically for handling, manipulation and assembly-related tasks that require two hands in a very coordinated fashion to perform.  Historically those tasks have been restricted to humans.

Not only is it an expansion for us, but we are creating a whole new market. As companies found themselves becoming non-competitive with products that required manual labor-intensive operations, they typically farmed them out to low-cost labor countries. So we are now providing the opportunity to automate those tasks, and by doing that, allow companies to compete with low-cost labor countries, while keeping the quality control, volume flexibility and design changes at home. So we think this is an application that has thousands and thousands of opportunities and something we are aggressively and actively pursuing.

RT Is the humanoid robot on the market now?

CJ Yes, we put the first generation product out last year and we came out with a seven axis and a 13-axis version of these new robots that are based on an actuator drive mechanism that is very lightweight and very flexible in regard to the articulation capabilities. In 2007, we came out with a 15-axis version, and very recently we introduced a very slim, high-speed lower cost version of the products – the SDA10.  These new slim dual-arm robots will not take up any more space than a human on an assembly line or wherever else it is being applied.

RT Could you provide an example of how it is being used?

CJ Sure, electromechanical assembly for instance, making a camera or other intricate assembly task, to assembling a differential gear for a transmission for an automobile. All assembly tasks, whether they be small electromechanical or a larger mechanical assembly, are target applications for these robots.  Then any other applications that you would not have automated in the past, such as making wire harnesses, have very flexible wires that are difficult to manipulate in certain configurations.  These kinds of tasks, which were typically performed using two hands, are perfect applications for these new humanoid robots.

We also see these robots being used for multi-process applications. Say you need to pick up a cover, apply some glue to it, stick it onto an assembly and drive some screws. You are accomplishing many processes there. If you had to apply a single robot to every task or hand changes, the speed would not be fast enough and the cost would be too high to make it practical. But with a dual-arm robot, you can accomplish it all with one hand change. So multi process applications, intricate assembly, flexible product applications – all these are viable targets.

Also, applications where you have to stuff bottles into a carton of different sizes. The only way to do it is to push back the products to get new ones in. Those can be accomplished with humanoid-like dual arm robots.

RT What is the major challenge for increasing the usage of these new humanoid robots?

CJ Since there has not been a line of robots like this on the market, customers do not immediately see the application for it. So we have had to do a lot of demonstrations, bring the robot to shows and show it doing things customers have never seen robots do before. We are literally creating the knowledge that there is a flexible automation solution that was not available in the past.  Customers are just waking up to it.

RT What is the price range for this class of robots?

CJ A dual arm robot is the price of two single arm robots with an added $10K for the additional axes. So if two six-axis robots are replaced with two seven-arm robots with a rotational waist, it might be $10K more than two single robots, but in one compact package. So if you were paying $50K for each robot, a new dual-arm, 20 kg payload robot might be $110K and now you get 15 axes.

RT Is there a cost to maintain the software each year?

CJ We update the software continuously with no cost impact as long as there is no hardware involved. If the robot is performing a task and there is no need to update the software, then customers do not bother with upgrades.  Customers typically upgrade software when there is new functionality available they want to take advantage of.

RT What was your biggest technical challenge to develop these robots?

CJ To develop 15 axis of motion in a very constricted space, we had to invent a new line of actuators. Those are motion devices that take a motor, a drive, and an encoder and put them all in one small, compact package. So you basically create the full output of motion in something that might be one quarter the size of conventional methods.

First we had to do that, then we had to invent a way to put those in line to create these arms, and that was also a whole new development.  Then finally, we had to work on the software to make it easy to manipulate 15 axis of motion with simple keystrokes, in regard to the teaching methodology.

The good news is, we have done multi-robot control since 1994, so we had an incredible library of software developed that coordinated multiple robots together, but not a multi-armed robot. We applied that software to create a whole new range of motion control software.

Our 13 years of doing multiple robot control came into major play here for the new robot platforms.

RT How well penetrated is the market for this new class of robots versus the market potential?

CJ We could sell literally thousands of robots per year and the market would still be wide open.

RT Are you are suggesting that some work that is currently going overseas could stay at home if these robots could be applied to it?

CJ Absolutely.  We have already proven with the industrial robot over its life of say 15 years, when you take initial cost and amortize over 15 years, add energy and all maintenance costs, your cost per hour for that robotic worker on a two shift operation is about $2.50 to $3 per hour, depending on the size of the robot. If you ran three shifts, it would be even less. That is very competitive with the cost of labor in China, when you add in housing costs and food costs and all the other things they add in, in addition to labor for that Chinese worker. So you are able to compete here with the Chinese worker, without having to move the operation.

That gets you the benefit of having no risk of intellectual property theft, having full flexibility to meet varying production needs, being very responsive to production changes, and all those things that are more difficult when working with offshore operations.

RT Can you name other new areas of application for industrial robots?

CJ Sure, the other expanding new application areas for us are:
- Drug discovery robotics;
- Clinical lab robotics;
- Alternative energy production – such as solar reflector panels;
- Humanoid robotics, as we have been discussing, and
- Aerospace.

RT Who is competing with you in this area of humanoid robots for industry?

CJ At this point, everyone else took a wait and see attitude on whether this would be a real market. What I hear now is because of our success our competitors are racing to come up with something. But at this point, we are the only ones out there with a multi arm robot of this nature. There are single-arm robots, actuator-based products, with payload or the size that does not come close to our offering. They are more 1 kg to 3 kg payloads, with small arms, used historically more in space or aerospace. We came out with a full industrial version of these things with much higher payloads, up to 20 kg and soon up to 50 kg.  So we have the lead right now and we don’t really have a strong competitor. But I’m sure that will change. In this market, you don’t get more than a three- to five-year advantage.

RT Who are the companies you expect to eventually catch up?

CJ Hopefully none, but we know that KUKA has licensed a small arm from a company that was doing products for space and aerospace. At least they have a touch of the technology. They are the only company out there that has an arm with some of the same design and technology, but it is only a single arm robot.  I am sure all of our competitors are racing to figure out what they can do.

RT Anything you would like to add?

CJ The size of the overall robot market could easily expand 50% or 100% beyond where it is today, as we move beyond the traditional industrial applications that these humanoid dual-arm robots can fulfill. The whole service robotics sector is making progress too, more in defense and home appliances, but soon in other areas as well.

b>RT Thanks you!

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