Programming robots for everybody

As CEO of drag&bot, Martin Naumann can tell you a lot about current trends in robotics. His company – founded as a spin-off of the Fraunhofer IPA in Stuttgart – offers a solution for uncomplicated programming of robots and end-of-arm tools. In an interview, he reveals where particularly large investments are being made, where the trend in robots is going and how standards are becoming established.

handling: Mr. Naumann, with drag&bot you offer a manufacturer-independent and cross-vendor solution for robot programming. Do you have access to all interfaces of the robots and the connected tools and grippers?
Almost all manufacturers of industrial robots, grippers, cameras and other peripheral devices offer standardized interfaces, which we use as an interface to drag&bot. These interfaces are often well documented and we often receive support from the manufacturers during integration.

So with drag&bot you can control the supported robots and end of arm tools as comprehensively as with the manufacturers’ solutions?
Yes, we often develop a special interface for the hardware together with the hardware suppliers in so-called integration projects in order to have all functions intuitively available for the operator. We even know some hardware manufacturers who use drag&bot internally in quality assurance to carry out functional tests of their hardware. Since drag&bot is executed on an external industrial PC, the limits are mainly robot applications that require very fast, deterministic reactions of the robot, such as conveyor tracking. Because of the speed, these should be executed directly on the robot controller and in the robot’s programming language. Such systems will continue to be implemented by system integrators in the future.

Do you see a trend towards standardization in robot control? Do you perhaps want to take the initiative in this area yourself?
Of course, with drag&bot we also wanted to give a practical impulse for standardization in robotics, but I think we should also remain realistic. Our primary motivation for drag&bot is to make robotics with its peripherals as simple as possible for everyone, in order to counteract the lack of skilled workers and to automate even small quantities and processes with a high degree of flexibility.
On standardization: Although there are always initiatives for standardization in various industries and all players are aware of the added value for manufacturers and users, examples such as the charging cables for mobile phones or electric cars show how difficult it is for the industry to agree on standards itself. In automation, too, attempts are being made to create a uniform protocol between machines with OPC UA, for example, although Profibus and Ethercat are still used much more frequently in practice. I myself participated in the committee for standardization in robotics during our time at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production and Automation (IPA) and learned how tedious it is to agree on standards. I believe that in the end it is legal requirements or global companies such as Google or Apple that not only publish standards but can also enforce them in the market.

When you look at your customers, are they more experienced users or do companies come to you who want to get into robotics from scratch?
Companies that are just starting out in robotics are usually very open to innovation like drag&bot. Here, the biggest advantage is often seen as being the ability to build up know-how in robotics with the existing employees, thus achieving greater acceptance among employees and greater flexibility in automation.
Companies with their own experts for robot programming already have established processes for their systems. The robots are often from one manufacturer and the programs are always structured in the same way, so that the expert can quickly find his way around when changes occur. There is often little motivation there to change the status quo, and we have to do more convincing work, for example with test systems, in order to make the added value of drag&bot tangible live. It is important to make it clear here that drag&bot cannot replace all processes, but rather to show the applications in which the added value of drag&bot comes into play, for example through frequent, independent interaction between robots and the operator.

In which area is the use of robots currently growing most strongly?
Manual workplaces with assembly and handling tasks, whether in the metal, electrical or plastics processing industries, currently have the greatest growth potential for flexible robotics.

On the subject of cobots: What special requirements does direct cooperation between humans and robots place on programming?
Compared to offline programmed industrial robots, the programming of Cobots is characterised by the interaction between robot and programming. During teach-in in the manual guidance mode of the Cobots, the points of the trajectory should be taken over directly by the robot or it should be possible to record entire motion sequences live. It is also practical, for example, if the gripper can be controlled and programmed by pressing buttons on the gripper. With the hardware that offers these functionalities, we also support them in drag&bot.

During the execution of Cobot applications, it is important for the operator to have a clear display of the current process and to be able to quickly make the appropriate entries and adjustments on this operating device.

Another important trend in recent years is the individualization of production. Which approaches do you follow to make the use of robots in assembly more profitable even for batch size 1?
In addition to the plug & play approach for the various hardware, we work primarily with so-called guides and wizards to individualize production processes. Guides are step-by-step instructions for creating new variants of production processes. With wizards we help the users to define the corresponding parameters quickly and without errors by means of graphical explanations. Furthermore, the operator has the possibility to view the most important parameters of the programs at any time during execution and to quickly adjust them in case of changes in the production process.

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