Last week, at RoboUniverse, one of the largest suppliers of industrial robots was noticeably absent, ABB. This powerhouse of automation that has installed over 250,000 robots worldwide could be resting on its laurels, but the latest news from Zurich suggest otherwise. Earlier this year, ABB declared war on Baxter and Sawyer with their new “YuMi” collaborative robot (see video). Now this week, ABB announces its new robotic venture accelerator in the UK and the opening of its first US manufacturing plant.
ABB’s investment accelerator, called IdeaHub, is currently offering students, academics, entrepreneurs and businesses the chance to collaborate with ABB’s team to take their robotic innovation to the next level (and feed ABB’s R&D pipeline). IdeaHub is currently accepting applications, and will start its first class in July. To apply, the accelerator is asking each applicant to address three challenges facing the industrial robot market:
1) Simplicity – “How will the next generation of robots interact with humans?” – By 2017 the number of installed industrial robots worldwide is expected to exceed two million and they will be working increasingly closer with people in their workplaces and homes. This presents a huge opportunity for innovation as robots come to new industries, to new environments and work with a wide range of people – both trained and untrained. YuMi is just one example of how ABB confronts this issue.
2) Deep Learning – “How will the industrial robot of the future learn from its experience, or from that of its robot colleagues, to make decisions and do things differently?” – This second challenge seeks to find a way to incorporate more artificial intelligence into the future designs. In the words of ABB, “robots are moving from making cars to driving them.”
3) Ecosystem – “How can we move to the next level, where productivity is multiplied?” – This final challenge reflects the fact that in today’s connected work environments, robots operate within a commercial and technical ecosystem of infrastructure, sensors, accessories, technicians, operating systems and software. This requires an ecosystem where industrial robots that traditionally work in line, step out and collaborate with each other and their human colleagues in new and different ways.
Reading the above descriptions it is almost like hearing Rodney Brooks speak about Rethink Robotics. Curiously, ABB’s accelerator is not being run by their corporate venture capital arm, but by Venturebright, a growth consultancy.
In the words of Venturebright’s operating manager, Tanvir Mufti, “We specialize in bringing together entrepreneurs, start-ups and corporates. While we think the VC funding model is great, there are other things that entrepreneurs might be looking for, aside from just funding. Some may be looking for access to technology to build their product, for customers willing to test their products or for access to markets to sell their product. These are things a corporate can often provide and we use the IdeaHub platform to make connections and then translate between entrepreneurs and corporates in order to make really interesting things happen for both.”
Across the pond in Michigan, ABB’s CEO, Ulrich Spiesshofer, made a big splash on Wednesday when he cut the ribbon on its first plant in the United States to manufacture robots for automakers and other industries. This latest move is definitely a judicious decision, since the US constitutes the company’s largest market with $7.5 billion of sales. ABB has been trying to enhance its footprint in the American soil since 2010, and has spent approximately $10 billion in local R&D, capital expenditures, and acquisitions.
According to Spiesshofer, in an interview with The Detroit News, “the U.S. is still the largest economy in the world. It is prospering. It has a great phase ahead of it. The investment in robotics in the U.S. by ABB is a very conscious investment.” Spiesshofer further says Detroit’s automakers have “regained traction” and “found a way to compete,” confirming that General Motors, FCA, and Ford Motor Co., especially, are customers. They “are leading again in certain aspects in their home market, and we want to help them.”
ABB represents a new kind of manufacturing business on American soil — robotics — that Spiesshofer, a German national, insists is a way to create jobs, not kill them. In fact, this Auburn Hills plant will employ 1,000 new workers.
“Germany would be dead today if it hadn’t invested heavily and continuously in automation,” he says. “Fact is, the countries with the highest robot density in the world have the lowest unemployment rates. We don’t offer robots to take away jobs. We offer robots to … enhance competitiveness.”
The operative word in Spiesshofer’s statement is competitiveness, it’s time to take notice, and not just the startups like Rethink and Universal Robotics.