Why I’m proud of my robot colleague

I’ve had the privilege of helping launch many exciting innovations during my 11 years working in robotics.

Some were robots the world has never seen before, others have helped our customers do amazing things.

But from the first time I was called into our ABB Robotics meeting room in Friedberg, Germany more than five years ago to learn about a new robot concept called ‘collaborative automation,’ I had the feeling I was going to be working on something very special. It is not often in our careers that we have the opportunity to work on ideas with the potential to transform an entire industry.

The concept behind collaborative automation, which ultimately became ABB’s YuMi robot, was so visionary because it anticipated a market need that would not exist for some time. Of course the whole world knew years ago that the market for consumer electronics like mobile phones was only going to grow.

But ABB also realized that the increasingly personal way to use such devices would require manufacturers to produce a wider assortment of products in smaller quantities and get them to market fast, while they are still trendy. When the Apple iPhone was launched in 2007, it ended the very popular trend for full mobile phone keyboards to support the new feature of texting after just and handful of years.

The problem is that this sort of flexible ‘high mix / low volume’ assembly was the exact opposite of how most consumer electronics were manufactured at the time – in mass and all the same. Changing production to meet more diverse needs meant that manufacturing becomes less predictable and more varied and sporadic, which is difficult to fully automate. At the time, the only way around this was manual assembly.

This however has drawbacks – it makes for dull, repetitive tasks for people with a high chance of errors while working with small and delicate parts.  And it’s not an efficient way to meet the demand for the hundreds of millions of smart phones, tablets, portable entertainment and wearable fitness devices sold each year.

ABB began research some time ago on how to meet this growing need for flexibility and productivity in small parts assembly by allowing robots and people to work together in ways never possible before. Robots could contribute precision and tireless endurance for repetitive work, and people could do what they do best – problem solving and adaptation to changing needs.

At the time however people and robots needed to be separated by physical barriers and safety zones to protect them from accidental contact with working robots. ABB started to challenge this constraint, and asked “how can we make a robot that can safely work alongside people while still being productive, and even share common tasks?”

The answer to this question is YuMi, the world’s first truly collaborative robot. YuMi was designed from the beginning to work safely and ergonomically with people. It incorporates a number of safety features from soft materials and motion control software, to a design which eliminates all pinch points – which is quite a feat considering its dual arms each move along seven axes.

This past week the global robot community acknowledged YuMi’s uniqueness during one of the most important manufacturing and automation technology forums, the Automatica trade fair in Munich, Germany. ABB was recognized for outstanding achievements in commercializing innovative robot technology with the prestigious IERA (Invention and Entrepreneurship Award) award.

The award was presented during the International Symposium of Robotics, which is jointly run by two of the world’s leading robotics trade organizations – IEEE robotics and the International Federation of Robotics. In addition to technical merit, nominees are also judged on the current and future impact to the robotics industry. And it was really an honor for ABB to be recognized among such distinguished company and so many great innovators.

YuMi has captured the attention of the media and industry all around the world during its introduction this past year, and has even met a few kings, presidents and prime ministers along the way. And what is especially great is that it’s captured the imagination of many customers in industries and applications ABB had not even thought of before.

Collaborative automation has tremendous potential. One estimate from Barclay’s Research suggests that the global market for just collaborative robots could be over 250,000 units five years from now, from really only starting in 2015. To put this growth in perspective, the global market for all robots in 2015 was 248,000 units, and that took some 40 years to reach that point.

I could not be prouder of what the YuMi robot has accomplished in its first year, and the IERA award recognition from robotics’ most important trade organizations is a great confirmation of how special this innovation is. We should not forget about the many people that made this happen – it is a truly collaborative story around the globe for the world first truly collaborative robot. Thank you all, I’m proud to be a very little part of this!

Categories and Tags
About the author

Anne Waltenberger

I joined ABB Robotics Marketing Communications team in 2005 and have become passionate about both Robotics and Communications. I think I have the best job in the world. Being the Global Communications Manager for the most exciting product ABB has to offer and working with so many talented and skilled people from all over the world is a true pleasure. I have a degree in Linguistics, Psychology and Literature and benefit from them when trying to explain why robots can help to make this a better world.
Comment on this article