The Glue of Automation
In the realm of automation and robotics, integrators play a crucial role.
Often referred to as the « glue of automation, » these engineering firms or individuals specialize in configuring industrial robots to execute automated manufacturing operations. They bridge the gap between robot manufacturers and end-users by assessing specific requirements for customized robotic solutions, creating a plan for automation, designing and programming the systems, and providing support for those systems.
Filling the gap
Integrators fill a massive gap in the current robotics market: They are the missing link between the robot manufacturers and the end-user. Indeed, robot manufacturers build the robots. End-users use the robots. In-between, you have the ever-so-important integrations of the actions the robot will perform. Integrators also assume full responsibility for the entire system, which minimizes the customer’s risk.
Seldom will you have an end-user capable of creating the entire integration process alone, unless you are called Amazon or Google and have an army of robotics engineers at your disposal because you are swimming in money (we love that for you, by the by).
Hence, the Glue. No integrators, no automation. Or, no automation unless you are capable of in-housing the entire process, which is Expensive™ and not within the reach of most SMEs and even, sometimes, bigger companies. So, we can all agree that automation is great. Robotization is great. But the programming language used is fundamentally different depending on the brand, the company, the uses, and various other criteria.
So integrators must act as translators between the machine and the program, because nothing is standardized and the whole process makes everyone sad and depressed, apart from, you guessed it, the integrators, who managed to make themselves quite indispensable.
Not only that, but any update or issue that occurs, and the integrators must come running back, guns a-blazing, wallet open wide to charge for their service. Automation is great… when it works. But when a line stops, whatever the reason may be, the cost will ramp up quickly. The impact may vary depending on how much the line contributes to overall production and how easily the company can switch to alternative production methods, but still. If the line is a critical part of the production process, the cost of stopping it will be significant. And if the issue requires specialized parts or expertise, the repair cost will be higher, ranging from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Better have your integrator on speed-dial.
Integrators are a necessity. Also, they often cost as much as the robot itself, if not more.
And we wonder why SMBs don’t jump on the bandwagon.
There is even an integrator certification program offered by robotics associations around the world. Robot manufacturers (KUKA, Fanuc, ABB, Yaskawa Motoman), have a large number of integrators who assist with the sale, maintenance, and technical support of their products. There are also agnostic-integrators that are not tied to a specific brand of robots, and instead evaluate and recommend the best solution for their clients based on the specific needs and requirements.
Why get an Integrator?
Outsourcing the process of connecting robot and system to integrators is what has been done for years. It’s the norm.
Need multiple software systems to exchange data with each other? Get an integrator. Need to connect a legacy system with a newer system? Get an integrator. Need help in determining and controlling the desired position of a robot? Get an integrator. The integrator will essentially help design and implement a solution to connect the different systems that involve industrial robots. They are responsible for ensuring that the robots are integrated into a company’s operations smoothly and efficiently, no matter the system, process or technology.
- Expertise: Extensive knowledge and experience in the field of robotics. They can provide guidance on the most suitable robots and applications for a company’s needs. They typically have pre-built robotic systems that can be tailored to fit the specific needs of a customer, or they can create a new system from scratch. They have strong connections with various equipment manufacturers such as robot, end-of-arm tooling, tool changers, etc.
- Efficiency: Having years of experience in implementing various systems, they can help to optimize productivity and improve the overall efficiency of the company’s operations, as well as finding the most cost-effective solution, tailored to the company’s needs.
- Support: They can provide ongoing support and maintenance for the company’s robotics systems to ensure their smooth operation. While robot arm manufacturers provide support for the robot itself, they do not typically support the entire system, which can make troubleshooting difficult. An integrator provides full system support, from initial setup and implementation, to online and onsite assistance, as well as training on how to use the system and perform troubleshooting in-house. By working with the same team consistently, the cost of support can be reduced, as they are familiar with the system and can resolve problems quickly, resulting in minimal system downtime and lost revenue.
- Communication: A collaboration between integrators and stakeholders usually won’t be a one-and-done partnership but rather a long-term relationship. It goes without saying that choosing well is of the utmost importance. On the menu, you’ll have: regular meetings and updates to keep everyone informed of the progress and potential set-backs; clear lines of communication with stakeholders with designated points of contact for each team or individual; a shared vision for the project that aligns with the stakeholders’ goals. In essence, trust.
We will not go into the nitty gritty details of the process, but this article will go through the extensive list of what it’s like to work with an automation integrator.
Everyone, including MIT, seems to agree that the absolute lack of standardization doesn’t do robotics any favors, and is calling for more harmonization and uniformity. We’re not there quite yet.
Well, Money. Power. Name your poison.
There is no power in standardization.
If the unthinkable happened and all the robotics and automation companies sat down at a table to discuss the best possible programming language to ensure SMBs and Big Corporations™ could have their pick, a few problems would arise.
On the one hand, standardization could make it easier and more cost-effective for companies to adopt and use automation and robotics technologies. It would help lower the barriers to entry for SMBs that might not have the resources or expertise to navigate the complexities of a non-standardized industry.
On the other hand, it would limit companies’ ability to differentiate their products or services, as they would be required to use the same programming languages and protocols as their competitors. This could lead to less innovation and competition in the industry, which could ultimately be disadvantageous to both companies and consumers.
That is not to say that such an option has never been presented.
A Consistent Interface for Robots
In 2022, Siemens launched an effort to regroup robot manufacturers (ABB, Comau, Epson, Fanuc, Jaka, Kawasaki, Kuka, Nachi, Panasonic, Stäubli, TM Robot, Yamaha, and Yaskawa) and encourage them to develop a solution for uniform data interface between programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and robot controllers.
This effort was led by PI, a group that set up a new « Robot Systems » working group and launched the « Standard Robot Command Interface » to develop, elaborate, and maintain this new robot profile. The goal of this collaboration was to make robot programming more efficient for both PLC programmers and suppliers by allowing robot programs to be written completely in the PLC, and reporting the required robot state information back to the PLC. It reportedly took two years for this group of manufacturers to find and develop this concept, as it required aligning the engineering and runtime systems of these robots, some of which had been on the market for decades.
This is a positive step towards more efficient and standardized way of robot integration and this approach has been successful so far (it’s been less than a year, let’s not forget). However, if it has taken two years to get to this result, it appears evident that it is a complex task. Still, it could be a significant improvement in terms of ease of use and reliability of robotic systems, and we are sure to see more of these type sort of collaborations over the next few years.
Here’s to hoping.
There’s another change looming on the horizon.
ROS (Robot Operating System) is an open-source, brand-agnostic robot control system that has been in development for several years, designed to provide a consistent interface for robots and their controllers, making it easier for developers and engineers to work with multiple different robotic platforms. Its only problem was that it wasn’t industrial grade. The latest version, ROS 2, is. It’s been specifically designed for use in manufacturing and industrial environments with improved performance, scalability and safety features. These features have made it quite popular in the sandbox, especially due to the fact it allows for the integration of different sensors, actuators, and software libraries.
The truth is that technology is constantly evolving and it is difficult to determine a standard that will be suitable for all industries and applications, especially as automation has not yet reached a stable rise yet.
Standardization can lead to increased collaboration and interoperability, as well as more efficient and effective use of automation and robotics technologies. It can also make it easier for companies, especially small and medium-sized businesses, to adopt these technologies, as they can navigate a more standardized industry with less resources and expertise. As the market for ROS 2 continues to grow, it will be interesting to see how it is adopted and how it will impact the industry.
There is a constant effort to disrupt the comfortable position of integrators and find alternatives to their services. One example of this is the emergence of no-code automation.
To put it bluntly, no-code automation is both a belief and a system that allows users to automate certain processes without needing to write the code. This concept has been around for a while, but the term « no-code » itself has been used more recently to describe this approach to automation.
So, how does it work? By engaging our visual sense rather than our coding knowledge. Think drag-and-drop elements (which have technically been around since the 1970s). It really started to gain popularity in the late 2010s, when providers and vendors started to market the no-code platform as an alternative for traditional development tools to cater the non-technical user and citizen developer. WordPress (2004), Shopify (2004), Notion (2016), Airtable (2012) are all no-code tools for the layperson to use.
In automation though, some companies have come out of the woodworks with their very own versions of no-code automation, specifically designed for robots automation. You will find Wandelbot, Fuzzy Logic Robotics, or Ready Robotics in their midst. These automations can be used directly by the end-user to set up a cobot (setting up an industrial robot with no-code is not a very smart idea, more on that later), or it can be used by integrators to automate some of their work. However, they may not be sufficient for all integration projects. Some projects do require custom code to be written in order to fully integrate the systems or technologies involved, and no-code just won’t do.
Overall, no-code automation tools have had a significant impact on the work of integrators, since it has made it easier for organizations to integrate different systems and processes, as they no longer need to rely on IT departments or technical experts to do it. However, it has also meant that integrators need to be even more knowledgeable and skilled in order to stay relevant in the market.
The Rise of Lean Integrators
Earlier, we mentioned the difference between no-coding a cobot and no-coding an industrial robot.
There are several reasons why setting up an industrial robot with no-code automation may not be the best idea. First, industrial robots are designed to perform complex and precise tasks that require a high level of programming expertise to ensure that the robot is able to perform them accurately and safely. Second, industrial robots often require integration with other systems and equipment. This could be a PLC, SCADA, vision systems, sensors, or other machines. These integrations usually require complex programming. Third, many industrial robots have safety requirements that must be met in order for them to be operated safely (fencing, light curtains, etc). So while no-code automation can be a useful tool for simpler tasks, it is not suitable for complex and high-precision applications such as industrial robots.
In comparison, no-coding a cobot is a no-brainer. First, cobots are designed to work alongside human workers, and their tasks are typically less complex than those of industrial robots. This means that less programming expertise is required to set them up and get them running. Second, cobots often have user-friendly interfaces (thank you, UR) and software that make them easy to program, even for non-experts. Third, cobots are designed to be flexible and easily adaptable to different tasks, which makes the no-code approach more suitable to its flexibility.
That being said, this is not a black-or-white only situation, and options have arisen.
Enter the lean integrator.
Lean integrators differ from traditional ones as they prioritize speed and cost-efficiency over handling large, custom projects. They will often specialize in specific areas or markets, making it easier for small and medium-sized companies to innovate and be cost-effective.
Traditional integrators (with contracts typically costing no less than $250K per project) handle multiple aspects such as machining, fabrication, welding, assembly, and factory floors, which are much larger. They also have a lot of departments and people involved in a single project and the kick off meeting usually include reviewing process documentation, discussing project overhead, capitalization, and cash flow and assigning a dedicated team for the project.
Lean integrators, on the other hand, have lower operational overhead and can take on smaller projects (under $100,000), such as cobot installations, in a shorter period of time. It makes them ideal for SMEs, as the process can take weeks instead of months.
Lean integrators are becoming part of the discourse because of one main reason: the looming labor gap in the welding industry, which is expected to reach 375,000 in 2023, and could disproportionately affect SMEs. Simply put, there might not be an option of choosing between a worker and a robot in the near future, since workers are reaching retiring age and companies cannot find replacements.
Robotic system integration type
Did you know? The market for robotics system integration is forecasted to grow to a worth of USD 4.38 billion from 2021 to 2026.
One of the primary factors driving this growth is the increasing demand for collaborative robots (cobots). Integrators,have been around for longer than the invention of collaborative robots in 2008. However, their arrival in the automation market has greatly benefited integrators. On the other hand, there are industrial robots which have been around for decades, which are machines designed to perform repetitive actions in an industrial setting.
When it comes to cobots, the payback period is often measured in months rather than years. They also typically require less expensive safety systems and are easier to program and integrate. These robots are versatile, allowing them to be reprogrammed for various uses throughout their lifetime. The whole cell usually cost under $100,000 and can be installed within weeks.
On the other hand, industrial robots are more expensive custom-engineering projects, designed for highly targeted applications or specific markets. They are used in vertically integrated operations that encompass multiple shops for machining, fabrication, welding, assembly, and factory floor use. They typically cost more than $250,000 and take months to be installed.
The Evolving Role of Integrators in the Technology Industry
Integrators play an important role in the field of robotics and industrial automations, and will keep doing so for years to come. They are and will remain responsible for several key tasks, including:
- Pure hardware integration: Ensuring that all of the hardware components of a robotic system (electronics and infrastructure), are properly set up and configured.
- Integration with the whole plant software stack: Working to integrate robotic systems with other software systems used in the plant, such as Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES), PLC, and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems.
- Compliance to automation norms: Ensuring that robotic systems comply with all relevant automation norms and standards (certification and security).
- Making robots smarter with the integration of vision systems powered by AI: Integrating vision systems powered by AI into robotic systems.
- Data management with IoT: While they aren’t exactly integrators, they are very IT-focused and are responsible for managing the data generated by robotic systems, particularly as it relates to the Internet of Things (IoT). This includes tasks such as data collection, storage, and analysis.
In a nutshell, integrators of the future will need to be highly skilled and knowledgeable in multiple areas (technology, project management, leadership, information management, data analytics, security, compliance), and will need to be able to navigate the complex and ever-changing technology landscape. It might mean reevaluating their involvement in robot integration and veering into more AI, I-o-T elements.
We aren’t anywhere near the point where integrators will fully disappear from the ecosystem of automation, though we are likely to see them evolve as turnkey systems start to take more and more space on the automation stage, leading lean integrators forward and encouraging no-code automation in a manner that hasn’t been seen before.