New Robots Designed to Be More Agile and Work Next to Humans

Wall Street Journal

ABB introduces the YuMi robot at a trade fair in Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, far right, look at a YuMi robotic arm in Hannover, Germany, on Monday. ENLARGE
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, far right, look at a YuMi robotic arm in Hannover, Germany, on Monday. PHOTO: WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS

Robot makers are promoting a new generation of robots designed to work safely alongside people and take on tasks such as assembly of small parts that require more dexterity than older robots can muster.

On Monday, ABB Ltd., a Zurich-based maker of automation equipment, introduced the latest such robot, dubbed YuMi, at an automation trade fair in Hannover, Germany.Fanuc Corp. of Japan is preparing to launch a rival offering called CR-35iA.

These robots will compete with other so-called collaborative robots introduced by smaller competitors in recent years that are touted as being more flexible, much easier to program and safer for humans. Older types of robots, designed to do such tasks as weld or hoist heavy objects, are so fast and powerful that they need to be surrounded by fences to avoid injuring workers. The newer robots have sensors and cameras, telling them to slow down or halt when people get too near.

“We have taken the robot out of the cage,” said Ulrich Spiesshofer, ABB’s chief executive, in an interview.

ABB said its new YuMi robot, with a starting price of about $40,000, can help assemble such products as smartphones, laptops and tablet computers that have been assembled largely by hand by workers in lower-cost countries like China.

It also could be used for quality inspections and packaging, he said. Auto makers long have been the biggest users of robots, but Mr. Spiesshofer said sales are growing quickly in other industries, including electronics, food and beverages. Sales to the auto industry now are less than half of ABB’s total robot business, he said.

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YuMi is dexterous enough to thread a needle, he said, though ABB isn’t working on robots for sewing at this stage.

ReThink Robotics Inc. of Boston and Universal Robots AS of Denmark have been selling collaborative robots for several years and continue to upgrade them. Last month, ReThink unveiled a new model called Sawyer, joining its earlier Baxter line, to do such work as tending factory machines and testing circuit boards. Sawyer is priced at about $29,000. Universal last month released a model called UR3, priced at roughly $23,000 and designed to do assembly in electronics and other industries.

ABB’s YuMi is designed to work with small parts weighing as much as 1.1 pounds. Fanuc’s CR-35iA, by contrast, can pick up items weighing as much as 77 pounds. The new robot is expected to be used for such things as stacking boxes on pallets, moving materials into place for assembly, and driving in screws.

Many repetitive tasks in factories are still done by people because they require a delicate sense of touch and dexterity that eludes most machines. Robot makers say they are making progress toward matching human dexterity, though. At the Hannover trade show, Kuka Roboter GmbH of Germany demonstrated new capabilities, developed in cooperation with Microsoft Corp., in Kuka’s two-year-old LBR iiwa robot. For instance, the robot installed a tube inside a dishwasher.

“The robot is able to wiggle it into place like a human would” by using sensors that measure such things as torque and resistance, said Dominik Bösl, Kuka’s innovation manager. “It knows how much force it should apply” and what kind of resistance it should meet.

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