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Plug-and-Play Robot Ecosystems on the Rise

POSTED 08/16/2021

 | By: Tanya M. Anandan, Contributing Editor

Ecosystems start out small. Then as more components join the fray and each benefit in a supportive, yet competitive environment with a common goal, the ecosystem grows and thrives. This is true of ecosystems in nature and business.

The footprints already exist in the digital world with the rise of PC platforms in the ‘90s and the explosion of mobile platforms in the last decade. The widely popular Apple App Store and Google Play Store, where third-party developers offer millions of software applications to increase the functionality of smartphones and tablets, is a combination of innovation, entrepreneurship and mutually beneficial partnerships, all culminating in a trusted marketplace for certified app solutions.

Similarly, robot ecosystems are bringing plug-and-play ease to compatible hardware and software peripherals, while adding greater value and functionality to robots. Some might argue that the first robot ecosystem was the network of robot integrators that has expanded over the last couple decades to support robot manufacturers and their customers. Robot integrators continue to be vital to robotics adoption and proliferation. Yet an interesting phenomenon began to take shape a few years ago with the growing popularity of collaborative robots and the industry’s focus on ease of use.

More Functionality in Less Time
Universal Robots is leading the way in robot ecosystems, building an entire community around developing peripherals and application kits for the company’s portfolio of collaborative robots. The Denmark-based cobot manufacturer launched its UR+ ecosystem in 2016.

What started as a few quick-connect robot grippers is now a thriving ecosystem of hundreds of compatible components, systems and software designed to expand and enhance the grasping, sensing, safety, functionality and interoperability of UR cobots. The UR+ platform has become a marketplace for products that bring more plug-and-play ease to cobot applications.

The UR+ program was part of cofounder and former chief technology officer Esben Ostergaard’s original vision for the company.

“He had a lot of interesting end-user scenarios,” says Joe Campbell, Head of U.S. Marketing for Universal Robots in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “One of them was that you shouldn’t have to be a gripper engineer to put a gripper on a robot. It should be simple, low risk and it shouldn’t take much time.”

Campbell describes the typical process for engineering a new gripping solution for a robot: “You have to first engineer a mechanical interface, which may mean an adapter plate, and maybe some other additional hardware. If you’re an integrator, it must be documented, because everything you do as an integrator you have to document. You have to engineer the electrical interface, how you’re going to control it, what kind of I/O signals, what kind of sensors. And then you have to design some kind of software.

“When I talk to integrators, they say it’s typically 1 to 3 days’ worth of work just to put a simple gripper on a robot. What we’ve been able to do in the UR+ program is chip away at time and cost throughout the project.”

That’s just the first step. Now imagine you need to add more complex functionality to your robot. The savings add up.

“A gripper is a gripper. A couple days of engineering, no big deal,” says Campbell. “But now you want to add a vision interface? You can spend weeks writing code to interface a vision system to a robot for a given application.”

Time is money. Plug-and-play functionality reduces that integration time and cost.

“If you look at the evolution of the UR+ program, we’ve had an explosion in the assembly field. I think now we have 6 or 7 autofeed screwdrivers in the program, from Visumatic, Atlas Copco and Weber. It’s not just that they connect. The beauty is the user doesn’t see two systems. They don’t see a Weber screwdriver and a UR robot. The Weber screwdriver is set up and programmed directly from the UR teach pendant inside our programming environment. It has the same look and feel, and ease of use.

A collaborative robot welding application kit brings seamless plug-and-play functionality to the shop floor. (Courtesy of Universal Robots)

“That’s a significant win, not just for the integrator or end user who’s deploying it, but it’s also a win for the production team that’s going to use the product every day,” says Campbell. “That’s what UR+ does, it reduces the time, cost and risk of adding peripherals or sensors, or other functionality, to a UR robot.”

Not Only Plug & Play – Plug & Produce
In addition to peripherals and accessories like grippers, vision components and safety systems, the UR+ ecosystem includes over 50 certified application kits. UR+ Application Kits provide hardware and software components designed to streamline deployment of the most popular cobot applications.

Applications span everything from finishing, quality inspection and machine tending, to material removal, welding, assembly, dispensing and material handling. These do-it-yourself kits bring what the Universal Robots team likes to call “plug-and-produce” functionality to very path-oriented, often complex applications. Take welding as an example.

You don’t have to be a robot programmer to use the Vectis Cobot Welding Tool. Watch this UR+ Application Kit on the job at a solar energy equipment supplier.

“The best thing about the system is that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to use it,” says Mike Gillin, a certified welder and Operations Manager at MT Solar. “I’m a welder by trade, but I didn’t know anything about robots, and I’m not very computer-savvy. Curiosity attracted me to the robot and I was really surprised at how easy it was to figure it out.”

The Vectis Cobot Welder arrives as a ready-to-weld package. The system includes a 10 kg UR cobot and an intuitive programming pendant loaded with weld libraries and tools. Users can ‘teach’ the cobot simply by moving the articulated arm to program points. The DIY system also includes an air-cooled welding torch, a starter fixturing set and a wire feeder. Mounted on a mobile cart, the cobot welder requires no anchoring and is ready for work anywhere on the shop floor.

“This is a system that I can rent or lease for a very short period. If it doesn’t work out, I’m not saddled with the thing,” says MT Solar President Travis Jordan. “That made it really easy for us to get started.”

“The beauty of these systems is not just the functionality of the UR+ product,” says Campbell, “but also the ability to control it, set it up and program it completely from the UR+ teach pendant.”

UR Caps is the software module behind this functionality. It works as a plugin to the UR operating system called Polyscope. The company likes to say ‘UR Caps is to robots what apps are to smartphones.’

How does it work? The UR+ product is delivered with a USB stick containing the UR Caps software plugin for that particular product or application kit. For a UR+ gripper, for example, you connect the gripper to the UR robot. Then the UR Caps plugin is uploaded from the USB stick via a port on the side of the robot teach pendant. At that point, the robot controller recognizes the brand of the mounted gripper, the size and model, and how it’s actuated. According to Campbell, it’s that simple.

Intuitive user interface directly integrated to the robot teach pendant enables users with no robotic experience to program the welding system. (Courtesy of Universal Robots)

Intuitive user interface directly integrated to the robot teach pendant enables users with no robotic experience to program the welding system. (Courtesy of Universal Robots)

 

Supportive Developer Community
Integral to the UR+ platform are the partner developers and suppliers. The UR+ program gives developers deep access to the software architecture to write applications for the partner suppliers’ peripherals and processes that enhance the functionality of UR cobots.

Similar to popular ecosystems and marketplaces for consumer electronics, proposed UR+ products must go through a certification process before they can be marketed on the platform. Peripherals and application kits must be tested and validated to make sure they are properly coded, behave as intended, and are safe and reliable.

Campbell says the developer partnership runs deep: “First of all, we have a dedicated team around the world that develops and manages the UR+ relationships – the ecosystem. To begin the relationship, one of our UR+ managers will evaluate and discuss the commercial case with the developer company. We want to understand how they envision the product being used and how it ranks against its competition. We talk about distribution, how’s it going to be sold.

“When all parties agree that it commercially makes sense, then it moves into the development phase,” continues Campbell. “An implementation engineer is assigned to support each of the UR+ partners. As they work through the development phase, there’s a couple different testing phases. Then the final certification test. The certification test is interesting because the UR+ team has to step back from all the hand-holding and put on their customer hat.”

He explains how the developer sends the product in the consumer packaging, along with the documentation, so it’s presented exactly as it’s intended to be sold: “Our guys unpack it and hook it up, only following the instructions that are included with the product. They don’t make any assumptions. They make sure the product works, the software works and even the documentation is complete.

“The benefit of the UR+ product certification is the user then knows it’s been tested by UR,” adds Campbell.

During the development phase, developers are supported by the relationship with the implementation engineer and commercial manager assigned to their account. Software developer guides and the online UR+ Developer Forum provide additional support. Once certified, the newly minted UR+ product joins a robust online marketplace with other certified peripherals and application kits. 

“We get tremendous web traffic on the UR+ section of our website. It’s a real win for developers to be part of the program.”

Win-Win for Suppliers, Integrators, End Users
The UR+ program has spawned not only vibrant marketplaces, but also new business models. There’s been an influx of distributors and small integrators to the automation space – Campbell calls them “lean integrators” – that help foster cobot adoption and rapid project turnaround.

Everybody wins in these ecosystems: The robot manufacturer, partner developers, robot integrators of all scopes and sizes, and of course the customers and users of robots.

“Most people equate UR with ‘easy to use.’ We’ve proven that time and again,” says Campbell. “You can take someone with no background in automation and in very short order have them programming and setting up UR robots.”

The UR+ ecosystem now encompasses over 300 certified products, with hundreds more in the pipeline.

Where Robots and CNCs Meet

Many equate the FANUC name with robots. Undoubtedly, the big yellow robots are the most recognized robot brand worldwide. But FANUC’s history as a producer of CNCs (computer numerical controls) dates back much further, to the 1970s.

Even with robots and CNCs manufactured under the same virtual roof for decades, only now with FANUC’s new ecosystem, are the two technologies finally shaking hands. The new platform is called QSSR for Quick and Simple Startup of Robotization.

New ecosystem connects robots to CNCs for plug-and-play robotic machine tending without the need for robotics programming expertise. (Courtesy of FANUC America Corporation)

Worker shortages around the globe and growing interest in automaton have raised the demand for robotic machine tending of CNC machines. But until recently, FANUC robots could not “talk” to FANUC CNCs. There was no easy connection.

The challenge was getting robot language to communicate with G-code, the software programming language used for CNC machines. That’s where QSSR comes in. Emphasis on quick and simple.

With one cable connection and some quick setup on either end, you could have a robot talking with your CNC machine. Better yet, you don’t have to be bilingual to do it. Operators fluent in CNCs don’t need to know robot programming to hit the ground running.

“With QSSR, because a lot of the configuration and I/O exchange is done in the background, the communications and everything is put together for you, so it’s quite a reduction in the amount of time it will take an end user to automate a CNC,” says Greg Buell, QSSR and Machine Tending Applications Senior Engineer at FANUC America Corporation in Rochester Hills, Michigan. “QSSR reduces setup time by over 50 percent.”

Not fluent in robot? No problem. Fanuc’s QSSR has your back.

“If you’re familiar with CNC and the path work, you can set this up on your own. That’s really the advantage of the QSSR,” says Buell. “Once you get all the parameters set on the CNC side, so the two systems are communicating, you will actually program the robot motion through the CNC. You don’t have to do any programming on the robot teach pendant itself.”

Faster, Easier Setup
Say you want to automate loading and unloading of your CNC machine. The QSSR package provides software for both the CNC and the robot. Then it’s simply one ethernet connection from the robot to the CNC and some quick set up on both sides.

On the robot side, it’s a quick Q&A guide on the teach pendant. On the CNC side, you set up some parameters for the robot and then the two controllers are talking. You’re good to go.

QSSR sets up an FL-net communications channel over ethernet. FL-net is an industrial network protocol that allows the FANUC robot and the CNC to communicate with each other over a standard ethernet cable.

Buell says the QSSR platform is plug and play. You don’t need an integrator or robot expert on staff to be able to automate a CNC machine tending application with a robot.

Watch this QSSR demo and see how easy it is to add robotic automation to your CNC.

Program Robots in G-Code
CNC operators or machine tool builders don’t need to know robot language or programming. The robot motion is all programmed through the CNC G-code.

“CNCs with the QSSR option allow you to see robot information on the screen. You can actually jog the robot with the MPG (manual pulse generator) handwheel on the CNC interface,” explains Buell. “Likewise, on the robot side, there are teach pendant screens that allow you to view the CNC operations and cycles, but also move the CNC axes.

“QSSR gives you full interoperability between the CNC and the robot from both access points, the CNC panel and the robot teach pendant.”

Integrating a collaborative robot to automate a CNC machine is quick and simple with a new communications protocol that allows the two systems to talk to each other. (Courtesy of FANUC America Corporation)

Right now, the QSSR platform only works with FANUC robots and FANUC CNC-controlled machines. Applications include robotic loading and unloading of machine tools, including the FANUC ROBODRILL vertical machining center (pictured), ROBOSHOT injection molding machine, and other machines with FANUC controls on them. QSSR is compatible with any FANUC robot model, including the FANUC collaborative robots line (green robot pictured).

The FANUC collaborative robots line also has its own ecosystem of third-party peripherals and software to enhance the functionality of FANUC cobots. Similar to other cobot ecosystems, the controls for peripheral products are integrated into the robot teach pendant through a software plugin for easy setup and ease of use.

Take a peripheral third-party device like a gripper, add it to the cobot with the software plugin and then combine them with the QSSR ecosystem, and you have one easy setup solution for collaborative robot machine tending. Two ecosystems combine to make one plug-and-play automation solution for CNCs.

New Ecosystem, New OS, More Possibilities
With the robotics market starting to mature and more users becoming comfortable with collaborative robots, manufacturers are recognizing the benefits of extending the easy usability of cobots to the traditional robotics space. A new ecosystem from robot manufacturer KUKA Robotics is just beginning to take shape. Their iiQKA Ecosystem (pronounced aye-cue-kah) starts with a new cobot ambassador by the name of LBR iisy and will expand to cover their entire robot portfolio over time.

The 3 kg payload cobot is the first robot in the KUKA portfolio to run on the new operating system that powers the iiQKA Ecosystem and is the first in a family of cobots from KUKA. With Linux at its core, the new iiQKA.OS has a modular, open architecture with APIs (application programming interfaces) to deliver fast development and maximize ease of use for both newcomers to robotics and experienced users.

New collaborative robot is first in line for a fledgling ecosystem of hardware and software that will bring plug-and-play ease to robotic material handling and machine tending applications. (Courtesy of KUKA Robotics)

“When you look at technologies like robotics, or any other sufficiently complicated type of hardware that traditionally takes a lot of skill, expertise, time and resources to implement, ecosystems have the opportunity to lower barriers to the point where anybody who wants a robot to do something, could do it,” says Nick Chambers, Global Manager iiQKA Communications & Ecosystem Business Development at KUKA Robotics in Augsburg, Germany. “We put a lot of effort into designing a subsystem that is future-proof and highly usable for customers and also external developers, whether they want to implement components such as grippers and vision systems, or some sort of software extension.”

The modular, open interfaces of the new OS not only make it easier for KUKA’s internal developers to implement new features faster and provide more rapid update cycles, but also benefits third-party developers. They make it faster and less resource-intensive for developers to deliver their value on top of an iiQKA.OS-based system.

“When a customer buys and installs a SCHUNK gripper on the robot, it just works. This is because of our open interfaces and what we call toolboxes. It comes preconfigured, the safety is already there,” says Chambers. “Our goal is to not only allow people that have ideas for tasks they want to automate to get access to the ecosystem, but also make life much simpler for our existing experts, through improved workflows and easier implementation of external components.”

Chambers describes the gradual roll-out of the new ecosystem: In the first step, the iiQKA.OS provides a new graphical easy programming method called iiQKA.smart programming based on a program tree and collapsible nodes with intuitive functionality that’s powerful for experts and highly usable by newcomers to robotics as well. When traditional six and four axis kinematics become supported by iiQKA.OS, the system will support programming in other modern programming languages, as well as KRL, KUKA’s existing robot programming language that has been in use for decades and has a large expert user base. When iiQKA.OS achieves functional parity with KSS within the next decade, KUKA will begin the phase out of KSS, the current main robot OS.

“We designed iiQKA to be easily migratable for KSS folks and also highly usable for people that don’t have a huge amount of expertise. We will also support new programming languages yet to be determined, for instance C++ or Python,” says Chambers. “That’s the flexibility of our system.”

Right now, the new cobot and operating system are only available to select companies for testing and will expand in availability throughout 2021 and 2022. Global availability is expected by the end of 2022, with additional expansion into 2023.

Watch the KUKA LBR iisy and iiQKA system in action at Zollner Elektronik AG.

The iiQKA Pre-Launch Package will ship with an optional SCHUNK Co-Act gripper preinstalled and preconfigured on the cobot for immediate use out of the box. The cobot is accompanied by the new smartPAD pro, which displays the completely redesigned and modern iiQKA user interface.

Access to a new robot ecosystem and operating environment is made easier with an intuitive user interface. (Courtesy of KUKA Robotics)

“We spent a ton of time thinking about how to make it easier to use,” says Chambers. “For instance, you can configure all your inputs and outputs and your safety right on the smartPAD in a very intuitive way.”

Watch Chambers demonstrate the usability of the iiQKA platform in this demo.

Open for Rapid Development

The initial third-party developers, or iiQKA Ecosystem Keystone Partners, are end-of-arm tooling manufacturers SCHUNK and Schmalz, safety systems supplier SICK, and Roboception for vision systems. Currently, KUKA is focused on partners with products that will help the LBR iisy perform relatively simple applications, including material handling, pick and place and machine tending. KUKA will initially have very tight control over the ecosystem and partner integration, but eventually plans for it to be an open ecosystem.

“We’ll grow our ecosystem to have an open developer portal, with documentation and tutorials, and the ability for developers to access APIs,” explains Chambers. “Anyone who has an automation idea will be able to gain access, create some functionality, and if they chose to, have the product certified and delivered via KUKA channels.”

Partner suppliers with certified products gain tighter integration with KUKA channels and reduce the amount of effort required to bring components and extensions to the marketplace. For customers and users of KUKA robots, the main benefit is a plug-and-play interface that doesn’t require a lot of expertise to design and implement a complete system, including gripper, vision and safety. Plug-and-play robot ecosystems also allow for rapid redeployment when market demand drives production changes.

How it works: For example, customers purchasing a certified gripper in the iiQKA Ecosystem will receive a USB stick to plug into the robot controller. Another possibility in the future as the system gains functionality over time, is if the robot controller is networked to the cloud, when you attach a certified gripper, it may ask if you want to install the toolbox for the gripper. Updates would also be delivered in this way, simplifying the process for all users.

KUKA is launching the iiQKA Ecosystem in the cobot space with the LBR iisy, but plans to roll out the ecosystem to its entire robot portfolio over several years.

“We have an entire platform we want to make capable of running on iiQKA, for all robotics use cases and payload ranges, from the smallest cobot to our 1-ton payload Titan. This is the beginning of a decade-long transformation for KUKA,” explains Chambers. “There’s an overall theme at KUKA called Mission 2030, in which anybody who needs and wants a robot should be able to implement a KUKA robot by 2030. The iiQKA Ecosystem is a key part of this mission.

“We want to have one basic operating system for all KUKA robots and iiQKA.OS is that operating system. Our goal is an entirely open, Apple-type ecosystem for robotics.”

Other robot manufacturers and suppliers offer new ecosystems for plug-and-play functionality with both collaborative and traditional robots. The Yaskawa Smart Series product line combines Yaskawa robots with preconfigured gripper solutions from third-party suppliers for fast and easy integration. Ready Robotics created READY.Market in partnership with providers of automation products to help end users find the components needed to deploy automation on their own.

Robotic hardware is no longer limited by its mechatronics. Software is continually updated and upgraded, enabling more functionality and adding more value with each iteration. Ecosystems are making robots easier to use for both novices and experienced robot users alike, spurring wider adoption, and bringing robots and people together in ways never seen before.

A3 Members featured in this article:
FANUC America Corporation
KUKA Robotics 
Universal Robots