In warehouse robotics, hardware cost/performance is a growth limiter. China was supposed to solve hardware affordability, but we may be surprised where it emerges.
As a young, rapidly growing, machine vision software company, when we tell fellow software entrepreneurs that our revenue grew year-over-year by 5x, they seem concerned and ask why it wasn’t 100- fold. “After all, it is just software,” they say; “copy/paste, right?” Granted, our product is more than software; there is an industrial PC to run the software, and some 3D sensors to acquire data. Still those items are readily available in volume. So what is slowing us down? If there is nearly infinite demand, why don’t we just sell, sell, sell all this software?
Of course, software is only half of the story
Our Crew Chief-managed machine vision software bestows hand-eye coordination to robotic arms that work in warehouses. Every software license we sell needs a cost-justified robot host to create value for the world. That is the sticking point.
What warehouses need is affordable robot hardware that is designed specifically for the purpose of supporting rapid growth. Not the invincible cast-iron marvels of the automotive manufacturing line. We need a $5,000 “DeWalt” robot, composed of injection molded components including lightweight and low-cost actuators. A robot that I can carry over my shoulder up a ladder, installs in hours, and lasts a couple of years. It doesn’t need to be nearly as accurate or repeatable as its automotive robot ancestors because parcel or each-pick handling applications typically don’t require it. It would be convenient if it were human-safe, so I don’t need additional safety equipment, but as long as it is fast/productive we can install a fence around it to meet safety requirements.
Why not make robot hardware cheaper?
Back in 2015, when Plus One Robotics was just a dream shared by three founders, we were well acquainted with the expense of robot hardware. You must ask, why we didn’t innovate the hardware along with the software? We are capable engineers… The answer is China. In 2015, there was a drumbeat of announcements for Chinese hardware companies entering the market with affordable collaborative robot arms. As we sat down to architect our business model, we discussed the possibility of developing a low-cost arm, which would be needed to support the rapid growth of robotics in warehouses. We had some innovative ideas about how to approach this challenge. But China. Surely, there were already hardware products in the development pipeline that would get to market before we would reach scale. Inevitably, China would out-compete us and the West on price. Therefore, we would focus on software, and bet on China to solve the hardware problem for us.
It’s now 2021, and we’re still waiting.
New solutions for the robot hardware bottleneck
Thankfully, not everyone bet on China to solve the hardware cost dilemma. Several other startups have pursued low-cost hardware innovation, and they deserve some recognition for their foresight and entrepreneurship. I am particularly fond of those who have taken on the speed reducer cost problem. Here the incumbent harmonic drive technology is approximately 50 years old. A rule of thumb for automotive robots is that the speed-reducing transmission found at each joint is about 1/3 of the bill-of-materials cost. As other components can be made more affordably with scale, the speed reducer cost will dominate even more. A breakthrough is needed. Here are a few companies that I am following, with the hope that they succeed at scale:
- IM Systems Archimedes Drive: This Dutch startup has surprised the world with a high reduction ratio traction drive (i.e. no gear teeth!) based on hollow planet rollers that are pre-loaded into assembly. Specs look amazing. So simple, you will ask yourself why not one of the 7 billion people on this planet has invented this already.
- Apptronik: Based in Austin, TX, this startup is innovating across a variety of novel actuators, building arms and legs that have amazing strength-to-weight specs, even on a budget. They are designing with the warehouse automation market in mind, so we are excited to see what they will announce next.
- Circular Wave Drive: An Ohio State University-affiliated startup, CWD is using hypocycloidal gears in a novel arrangement to eliminate backlash. Torque density and efficiency are advantages of this approach, even while driving down cost.
- Genesis Robotics and Motion Technologies: This Vancouver team is developing a plastic injection molded speed reducer known as Reflex(TM). It is light and back-drivable for collaborative applications. Lightweight means low inertia, which is the key to speed.
As much as I believe software will create great value for the warehouse automation industry, new innovative hardware will help democratize the marketplace, and take the robotics industry to a whole new scale. Robot hardware innovators of the world, I salute you. May you succeed enormously. And please hurry.
Paul Hvass is the Co-founder and COO of Plus One Robotics. Before starting Plus One, Paul was a Program Manager in the Robotics and Automation Engineering group at Southwest Research Institute. There he co-founded and managed the ROS-Industrial Consortium. He holds four patents and has three patents pending. Paul holds an MSME from the University of Texas focused on fault detection in robots.