COVID-19 has disrupted global manufacturing, supply chains, and conferences, but commercial robotics applications have continued to mature. This week's Automate Forward virtual event demonstrated the growing interest in automation for the manufacturing, logistics, and supply chain industries.
“Q4 of 2020 was the second-highest ever for robotics sales,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3). “People are ready to go now.”
The Automate event, which would have been held in Detroit, was moved online as Automate Forward. “It has exceeded our goals,” Burnstein told Robotics 24/7. “We had about 275 exhibits, more than 40 sessions with nearly 100 experts, and more than 8,200 registrants. We had to cut off exhibitors and registrants because our platform could handle only so many.”
“Among the positives of a virtual event is that we can reach people farther than 300 miles, who may not typically travel,” he said. The sessions from Automate Forward 2021 will be available on demand for free through April 3.
A3 consolidates, rebrands
A3 also announced at Automate Forward that its member organizations, which include the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), AIA (Advanced Vision + Imaging), the Motion Control & Motor Association (MCMA), and A3 Mexico, will be uniting under the Association for Advancing Automation. The new www.automate.org website will be live on April 14. Why are the associations consolidating, and why now?
“We've been talking about it for about five years,” replied Burnstein. “We originally launched as the RIA and added other associations along the way. But that's not how those in industry do things. They just want to solve problems with technologies, and as they converged, the associations realized, 'Why make this complicated? It's not intuitive between our sites for robotics or vision, and why can't members take advantage of all of them?'”
“We've had Google, Microsoft, and other big companies come to us asking, 'Why do we have to join multiple associations?'” he recalled. “We decided that we are stronger under one umbrella. It will include things such as a whole community for artificial intelligence.”
“A3 is the front-facing brand for all 1,100 members, which will be better for the media and general public,” Burnstein said. “It will be easier to drive traffic to one website and tell our story to companies we'd like to engage with as members.”
In addition, the consolidation will make it easier for A3 to serve as an advocate for automation in Washington, D.C. “One day, I'd appear as the president of the RIA, and the next as the president of A3,” said Burnstein. “There were early indicators at a White House summit on AI that it will definitely help to have one voice, especially as issues like robot taxes periodically come up.”
“COVID-19 prevented a lot of us from going to D.C. and delayed our ability to have influence,” he added. “It's too soon to tell how the new Congress or administration will view robotics, but there is some legislation moving that seems to be favorable to automation.”
A3 also plans to hire more staffers for marketing and laboratory work, he said.
Automate Forward's virtual lobby. Source: A3
Robotics trends to watch in 2021
Despite last year's slowdown in automotive manufacturing, accelerated e-commerce demand has helped overall robotics adoption.
“Non-automotive orders had a great year last year, and it will continue to grow,” Burnstein said. “The automotive industry is cyclical. When carmakers change models or prepare to introduce new models, they and their suppliers add robots.”
“Last year, automotive OEMs increased their orders, even if suppliers didn't,” he noted. “In our numbers and the data collected by the IFR [International Federation of Robotics], we don't get into what's happening in e-commerce right now, so it's not a full picture.”
“The biggest non-automotive sector is e-commerce logistics and AMRs [autonomous mobile robots],” said Burnstein. “If anything, our figures are conservative, since we can't say how many AMRs and collaborative robots were sold.”
Jeff Burnstein, president, A3
Burstein declined to speculate on whether there will be consolidation among AMR or cobot providers, but he did say that he expects reshoring of production and growing awareness by small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) to help sales.
“Reshoring is happening slowly because manufacturers can't just rip out their supply chains, and global companies need to protect themselves and can't locate in just one country,” he said. “Also, there's a lot of innovation continuing in this space.”
Users top of mind
To help businesses implement automation, many vendors have touted their latest products' ease of use. At the same time, newcomers should still seek the best information and assistance as they evaluate tasks and technologies and decide to deply robots, Burnstein said.
“It's the same issues—ease of use, return on investment, safety, and flexibility,” he said. “Someone noted during Automate Forward's cobot panel that just because automation is easier, it doesn't mean you don't need help designing your solution. Integrators and distributors still have a role to play. Those needs don't go away, especially where there's a lack of skilled workers.”
“To fully take advantage of the technology, it doesn't hurt to get some help,” said Burnstein. “Do you listen to a supplier, which will tell you about its products, or do you listen to an integrator, which will just tell you about its strategic partners? We see A3 as a trusted resource for information and education on how to automate. A3 can provide an unbiased look at the whole ecosystem for people just getting started or for an Amazon or Procter & Gamble that is further along in their journey.”
Standards and partnerships
In addition to ease of use, standards for safety and interoperability are crucial to encouraging businesses to use robotics.
“Safety is critical,” Burnstein said. ”The Washington Post recently talked to me and Boston Dynamics, and it reported that one of the main barriers to robot butlers in the home is the technology for working in different environments is still not there yet.”
“Standards are always going to be a critical issue,” said Burnstein. “We're working on standards for communications among mobile robots.”
“For interoperability, we're working with groups like MassRobotics and the ARM [Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing] Institute,” he said. “The Pittsburgh Robotics Network is also a partner, and we've worked with Silicon Valley Robotics.
“We're also very active internationally. A3 Mexico will roll up into A3,” Burnstein added. “We work with the VDMA [Germany's Mechanical Engeineering Industry Association], the IFR, and we have good relations with the Chinese Robotics Industry Alliance and the Chinese Machine Vision Industry Alliance.”
Automate to return in 2022
“The pandemic forced us to postpone the live version of Automate to Detroit next June, rather than 2023, which is when it would normally be,” Burnstein said. “There's so much demand now for quality information on how to automate and what technology is out there that waiting would have done a great disservice.”
“Automate will be in 2022 and 2023, then we'll probably go back to every other year,” he added. “The virtual platform allowed for networking, but it's not the same as in-person events.”
In addition, Vision Week will occur virtually from June 8 to 10. A3 will announce other events around safety, AMRs, and artificial intelligence this fall, said Burnstein.
“Our mission is to encourage people to adopt automation,” he said. “We want to help them apply it—whether you use this member or that member, what matters is the successful application.”
About the Author
Eugene Demaitre is editorial director of Robotics 24/7. Prior to joining Peerless Media, he was a senior editor at Robotics Business Review and The Robot Report. Demaitre has also worked for BNA (now part of Bloomberg), Computerworld, and TechTarget. He has participated in numerous robotics-related webinars, podcasts, and events worldwide.
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