Don’t Fear the Robot: Humatics, Eckhart Push Factory Automation Tech

The state of American manufacturing has become an increasingly hot topic of conversation since the 2016 presidential election laid bare the discontent felt by workers and business owners alike.

However, companies like Algonac, MI-based Eckhart and Cambridge, MA-based Humatics see an opportunity to reinvigorate American manufacturing through so-called “Industry 4.0” technologies—automated, connected, and collaborative tools that allow humans and robots to work side-by-side in leaner, more flexible “smart” factories.

Humatics, which is advancing “microlocation” tech originally developed at MIT, is today unveiling its spatial intelligence platform at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. Eckhart, a Humatics partner that sells manufacturing technologies and services, and ZPMC, another Humatics sales partner, plan to integrate the Humatics platform—which combines sensors and software—into their existing and future automated guided vehicle (AGV) systems for factories.

The spatial intelligence platform and its accompanying AGVs mark the latest attempt to improve the mobility and sophistication of industrial robots, which have received increased investment in recent years. What’s notable here, Eckhart and Humatics say, is the industrial robots can move around the factory floor via radio-frequency beacons and mobile sensors rather than being constrained to a fixed route guided by magnetic tape.

In addition, the AGVs can change routes on the fly without the need to reconfigure any infrastructure and can also travel seamlessly between indoor and outdoor environments with centimeter- and millimeter-scale accuracy, the companies say. (The Humatics centimeter-scale systems are commercially available as of today; the millimeter-scale systems are currently being piloted and are expected to launch by the end of 2019, the company says.)

Eckhart CEO Andy Storm describes his 325-person company as a provider of advanced manufacturing solutions to the largest industrial companies in the world, including John Deere, Mercedes, and Procter & Gamble. He says that as mobility technologies that are primarily being built for the auto industry mature, they also have the potential to make manufacturing more efficient.

“Traditional conveyance operations can’t keep up with the rate of change from end customers, so manufacturers are looking for more flexible and automated systems,” Storm says. “We’ve known the demand has existed for years, and many of our customers have explored systems like LiDAR (light detection and ranging) but have backed away due to the cost and complexity. The Humatics solution is very easy to adopt and integrate into existing systems.”

By using radio-frequency beacons, Humatics says it can pinpoint multiple, moving targets whose locations are broadcast via transponder. The transponders can be networked together—strung throughout a factory, for example, or mounted on an autonomous vehicle—to provide more precise positioning at what Mindell says is a fraction of the cost of LiDAR and other complex visioning systems.

Mindell says his company’s acquisition of 5D Robotics and its subsidiary, Time Domain, earlier this year was “essential” to accelerating the company’s commercialization plans. He also says the needs of Eckhart’s manufacturing customers have also informed the way Humatics has built its products and the company’s decision to enter the commercial market via industrial applications.

“We see the industrial market as enormous and very exciting,” Mindell says. “We’re also extremely happy to contribute to the revitalization of manufacturing as an American industry. We don’t see our platform as scary take-my-job technology, but something that will allow robots to collaborate in human environments. It’s essential that this technology is deployed in a way that is compatible with people.”

In fact, Mindell predicts an imminent relocation of some manufacturing operations from Asia back to the U.S., and he’s proud of the role Humatics might play in facilitating that relocation.

“We collaborate with a lot of companies in the Midwest, and technology is starting to move from the coasts to the heartland,” he adds. “That’s a very good thing for the country. One of the main ways Humatics wants to contribute is by tying people and technology together.”

American companies moving their offshore manufacturing businesses back to the U.S. … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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