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Universal Robots, already the dominant force in collaborative robots, is flexing its muscles in an effort to further expand its reach in the cobots market. The Danish company is introducing today the UR16e, its strongest robotic arm yet, with a payload capability of 16 kilograms (35.3 lbs), reach of 900 millimeters, and repeatability of +/- 0.05 mm.
Universal says the new “heavy duty payload cobot” will allow customers to automate a broader range of processes, including packaging and palletizing, nut and screw driving, and high-payload and CNC machine tending.
In early 2015, Universal introduced the UR3, its smallest robot, which joined the UR5 and the flagship UR10, offering a payload capability of 3, 5, and 10 kg, respectively. Now the company is going in the other direction, announcing a bigger, stronger arm.
“With Universal joining its competitors in extending the reach and payload capacity of its cobots, a new standard of capability is forming,” Rian Whitton, a senior analyst at ABI Research, in London, tweeted.
Like its predecessors, the UR16e is part of Universal’s e-Series platform, which features 6 degrees of freedom and force/torque sensing on the tool flange. The UR family of cobots have stood out from the competition by being versatile in a variety of applications and, most important, easy to deploy and program. Universal didn’t release UR16e’s price, saying only that it is about 10 percent higher than that of the UR10e, which is about $50,000, depending on the configuration.
Jürgen von Hollen, president of Universal Robots, says the company decided to launch the UR16e after studying the market and talking to customers about their needs. “What came out of that process is we understood payload was a true barrier for a lot of customers,” he tells IEEE Spectrum. The 16 kg payload will be particularly useful for applications that require mounting specialized tools on the arm to perform tasks like screw driving and machine tending, he explains. Customers that could benefit from such applications include manufacturing, material handling, and automotive companies.
“We’ve added the payload, and that will open up that market for us,” von Hollen says.
The difference between Universal and Rethink
Universal has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 2008. By 2015, it had sold more than 5,000 robots; that number was close to 40,000 as of last year. During the same period, revenue more than doubled from about $100 million to $234 million. At a time when a string of robot makers have shuttered, including most notably Rethink Robotics, a cobots pioneer and Universal’s biggest rival, Universal finds itself in an enviable position, having amassed a commanding market share, estimated at between 50 to 60 percent.
About Rethink, von Hollen says the Boston-based company was a “good competitor,” helping disseminate the advantages and possibilities of cobots. “When Rethink basically ended it was more of a negative than a positive, from my perspective,” he says. In his view, a major difference between the two companies is that Rethink focused on delivering full-fledged applications to customers, whereas Universal focused on delivering a product to the market and letting the system integrators and sales partners deploy the robots to the customer base.
“We’ve always been very focused on delivering the product, whereas I think Rethink was much more focused on applications, very early on, and they added a level of complexity to their company that made it become very de-focused,” he says.
The collaborative robots market: massive growth
And yet, despite its success, Universal is still tiny when you compare it to the giants of industrial automation, which include companies like ABB, Fanuc, Yaskawa, and Kuka, with revenue in the billions of dollars. Although some of these companies have added cobots to their product portfolios—ABB’s YuMi, for example—that market represents a drop in the bucket when you consider global robot sales: The size of the cobots market was estimated at $700 million in 2018, whereas the global market for industrial robot systems (including software, peripherals, and system engineering) is close to $50 billion.
Von Hollen notes that cobots are expected to go through an impressive growth curve—nearly 50 percent year after year until 2025, when sales will reach between $9 to $12 billion. If Universal can maintain its dominance and capture a big slice of that market, it’ll add up to a nice sum. To get there, Universal is not alone: It is backed by U.S. electronics testing equipment maker Teradyne, which acquired Universal in 2015 for $285 million.
“The amount of resources we invest year over year matches the growth we had on sales,” von Hollen says. Universal currently has more than 650 employees, most based at its headquarters in Odense, Denmark, and the rest scattered in 27 offices in 18 countries. “No other company [in the cobots segment] is so focused on one product.”
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We humans spend most of our time getting hungry or eating, which must be really inconvenient for the people who have to produce food for everyone. For a sustainable and tasty future, we’ll need to make the most of what we’ve got by growing more food with less effort, and that’s where the robots can help us out a little bit.
FarmWise, a California-based startup, is looking to enhance farming efficiency by automating everything from seeding to harvesting, starting with the worst task of all: weeding. And they’ve just raised US $14.5 million to do it.
FarmWise’s autonomous, AI-enabled robots are designed to solve farmers’ most pressing challenges by performing a variety of farming functions – starting with weeding, and providing personalized care to every plant they touch. Using machine learning models, computer vision and high-precision mechanical tools, FarmWise’s sophisticated robots cleanly pick weeds from fields, leaving crops with the best opportunity to thrive while eliminating harmful chemical inputs. To date, FarmWise’s robots have efficiently removed weeds from more than 10 million plants.
FarmWise is not the first company to work on large mobile farming robots. A few years ago, we wrote about DeepField Robotics and their giant weed-punching robot. But considering how many humans there are, and how often we tend to get hungry, it certainly seems like there’s plenty of opportunity to go around.
FarmWise is collecting massive amounts of data about every single plant in an entire field, which is something that hasn’t been possible before. Above, one of the robots at a farm in Salinas Valley, Calif.
Weeding is just one thing that farm robots are able to do. FarmWise is collecting massive amounts of data about every single plant in an entire field, practically on the per-leaf level, which is something that hasn’t been possible before. Data like this could be used for all sorts of things, but generally, the long-term hope is that robots could tend to every single plant individually—weeding them, fertilizing them, telling them what good plants they are, and then mercilessly yanking them out of the ground at absolute peak ripeness. It’s not realistic to do this with human labor, but it’s the sort of data-intensive and monotonous task that robots could be ideal for.
The question with robots like this is not necessarily whether they can do the job that they were created for, because generally, they can—farms are structured enough environments that they lend themselves to autonomous robots, and the tasks are relatively well defined. The issue right now, I think, is whether robots are really time- and cost-effective for farmers. Capable robots are an expensive investment, and even if there is a shortage of human labor, will robots perform well enough to convince farmers to adopt the technology? That’s a solid maybe, and here’s hoping that FarmWise can figure out how to make it work.
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