BOSTON — About 6,100 attendees and more than 500 expert speakers and exhibitors gathered here this week for PTC’s annual LiveWorx conference. Robotics Business Review hosted the Robotics & AI Summit at the event, and here are some initial observations.
The opening keynote for LiveWorx ’18 featured aerial acrobats, LED color-changing orbs, host Mario Armstrong, and PTC President and CEO Jim Heppelmann. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is moving from “place to pace,” Heppelmann said, as embedded sensors, PTC’s software suite, and augmented reality (AR) interfaces such as the HoloLens from PTC partner Microsoft accelerate the “physical-digital convergence.”
LiveWorx provided panel discussions, training, and executive and technical content for the manufacturers and partners convening in Boston’s Seaport District. Visitors to the Xtropolis exhibit hall could learn about additive manufacturing or 3D printing; augmented and virtual reality demonstrations; and workshops about industrial design, smart cities, and connected medical devices.
The Robotics & AI Summit @ LiveWorx ’18 included sessions on collaborative robots, smart manufacturing, and applications for machine learning, as well as our Chief Robotics Officer (CRO) Network Summit.
Day 2 of the summit included tracks on artificial intelligence and robotics, roundtable discussions, and case studies. The Robotics Pavilion in Xtropolis showcased mobile robots, cobot arms, and leading component suppliers.
So what were the hot AI and robotics trends at LiveWorx?
1. Interest in AI and IIoT is really about data
As with other types of computing, the importance of software in automation will increase relative to that of hardware, noted several panelists at the Robotics & AI Summit.
Mobile platforms such as robots and drones are increasingly connected to the cloud and enterprise systems via IIoT, they said. Big data is the ultimate commodity gathered by sensors and processed by analytics and AI, and deriving value from it will be the differentiator for successful products and users.
AI is very good at solving a very specific set of problems, but it is very bad at solving complex problems that require creativity or involve dynamic changes, said Chris Benson, chief scientist of AI and machine learning at Honeywell.
Manufacturers, integrators, and automation experts all agreed that the main challenges for Industry 4.0 are to understand and serve customer needs.
Companies should start with a solid data strategy, said Benson.
2. Mobile robots continue to gain traction
Aside from traditional industrial automation in caged cells in automotive plants, one of the hottest areas for robotics this year has been in supply chain and logistics.
Among the vendors in Xtropolis were Locus Robotics, Seegrid, and Vecna Robotics, each of which takes a different approach to materials handling.
Locus demonstrated its LocusBots, which can move safely around humans in e-commerce order-fulfillment facilities. Seegrid’s vision-guided vehicles can autonomously move heavy loads, and Vecna’s lineup includes robots for warehouses, telepresence, and hospitals.
By contrast, robotic manipulation is improving more slowly, said the panelists. For example, researchers have worked on fruit picking for decades, but progress has been made only recently with soft robotics, noted Ai Ping Hu, a senior research engineer at Georgia Tech Research Institute.
In addition, FedEx is “keeping an eye on” aerial drones, but it’s more interested in potential deliveries with ground robots, said Ted Dengel, managing director of operations technology at FedEx.
3. Workforce worries are widespread
Nearly every session in the Robotics & AI Summit touched on the fear that some workers may have in response to increasing automation. There are several ways to address such concerns.
“The rate of unemployment in the U.S. has fallen even as the adoption of automation has risen,” said Alex Shikany, vice president at the Association for Advancing Vision + Imaging.
Automation is only just beginning to replace dull, dirty, or dangerous work, such as painting cars, said Doug Olson, president of Harmonic Drive.
Another such task is chicken de-boning, which Georgia Tech is working to automate, said Ai Ping Hu. However, white-collar jobs are more at risk from AI than blue-collar ones, he added.
“Robots by themselves, people by themselves — neither is optimal,” said Jeff Christensen, vice president of product at Seegrid. “Smarter robots can mitigate risks and make robots easier to adopt.”
Governments and business have a responsibility for helping spread the benefits of automation across communities, said Katie Stebbins, vice president of economic development at the University of Massachusetts.
Public-private partnerships can help by providing pathways to careers in modern manufacturing, said Dr. Byron Clayton, CEO of the ARM (Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing) Institute.
“It’s time for a revolution that elevates, not eliminates, humans’ role in manufacturing,” Clayton said.
4. CROs express privacy concerns
The facilitators at the invitation-only CRO Summit handed out a checklist for evaluating and implementing robots, but data security was a major topic of discussion.
The EU’s General Data Privacy Rule, concerns about intellectual property (IP) protection, and liability for autonomous robots and cars all came up as items that CROs have to be ready to address.
In another session, STM China’s Georg Stieler noted that despite its strong appeal, China presents numerous challenges for robotics suppliers and users, including IP protection, the climate for entrepreneurs, industry standards, and political tensions with the U.S.
5. VR gets useful
As with aerial drones and humanoid robots, AR and virtual reality have quickly evolved from consumer entertainment to a useful human-machine interface for business use.
In his opening keynote, Heppelmann showed how AR and VR can improve training in complex procedures such as preparing a blood analyzing station. The technology can also make automation more efficient and guarantee quality in healthcare, manufacturing, and other markets.
BioDigital Chief Innovation Officer Aaron Oitker demonstrated to Robotics Business Review how surgeons can use HoloLens to prepare to repair cleft lips and palates. By combining 3D simulation with AR, common birth defects can be more easily and consistently treated, transforming patients’ quality of life.
We’ll be talking more about our observations from the Robotics & AI Summit @ LiveWorx in a webcast next week.
Editor’s note: Robotics Business Review Editor Keith Shaw contributed to this report.
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