Interoperability: A Key Challenge for the Robotics Industry
What Is Interoperability?
Interoperability means “the ability of computer programs or systems to exchange information”. With today’s systems becoming more diverse, interoperability has become an absolute must for them to work together. In fact, interoperability is everywhere and contributes heavily to the growth of the robotics environment. Not only is it creating new businesses and business models, but it also enables existing ones to integrate into new spaces and platforms.
However, the complexity and rapid expansion of the robotics industry has led to some major challenges. Let’s have a look at the two main reasons why interoperability is so crucial for the robotics industry.
The Rise of Mobile Robots
Interoperability is a term that has been known in the robotics industry for quite some time. Still, the adoption of the practice is rarely seen at this moment. There are, however, two factors that currently drive the need for interoperability in the robotics industry:
Increasing Demand for Mobile Robots
You may already be familiar with the mobile robots market and its huge growth over the last few years. In fact, advances in robotics technology are lowering the barriers for companies of all sizes to adopt autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and automation — especially in the manufacturing industry. As exciting as this may be for the development of the industry, it has also brought a big challenge to the surface.
Many different types of businesses — warehouses, factories, logistics centers, and hospitals — are adding various types of robots to their facilities. These, however, are often supplied by different manufacturers. The result? Robotic fleets are becoming more diverse, consisting of different types and brands of robots. Besides, robots are also becoming more autonomous — meaning they can operate without the help of human workers. This means that the communication between robots becomes even more important. That is, both in terms of efficiency and workplace safety.
Specialization of Mobile Robots
With the demand for robots being higher than ever, it is no surprise that robot manufacturers can hardly keep up with this growing demand. Instead, their robots are becoming more specialized. As a result, a larger number of specialized robots entering the market. In fact, we are now seeing various industries adding different types and brands of robots to their facilities for different use cases. For example, a warehouse can now have a mobile robot for lifting heavy items, one for lifting smaller loads, one for cleaning, another one for security, and so on.
Although this may not seem to be an issue at first, there is one important thing to keep in mind. In most cases, different types and brands of robots will be supplied with different operating systems. This is where the problem arises: a lack of interoperability.
Aaron Prather, Senior Technical Advisor at FedEx Express, adds to this the following: “Now, logistics companies will be able to buy hundreds if not thousands of different palletizing and Pick & Place robots before interoperability comes up as a major issue. However, when it comes to Mobile Robotics, interoperability is already becoming an issue and in some cases is already here.”
As these different types and brands of robots will most likely operate in the same space, it is guaranteed that they will cross paths at some point. When they do, it is of utmost importance that their systems are interoperable and can communicate with each other. If this is not the case, collisions, accidents, and delays in operations may be just around the corner.
Robotics Trends Affecting Interoperability
Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
RPA is a software that enables the automation of operational processes that used to be carried out by human workers. It is especially useful for businesses with a large amount of repetitive tasks. By minimizing the risk of operational errors, RPA helps businesses achieve higher operational efficiency and profitability. Examples of RPA include processes such as inventory management in hospitals as well as automated invoice management and appointment scheduling.
Robots as a Service (RaaS)
Especially when combined, RPA and RaaS can be a game changer for the robotics industry. Thanks to the everything-as-a-service (*aaS) trend, companies of all sizes can now implement RPA through RaaS models. Such models offer a wide range of features such as analytics, preventive maintenance, and monitoring. Also, they allow businesses to scale more quickly and continuously adapt their platforms based on their exact needs.
AMRs as Data Acquisition Platforms
As is shown in the image above, software for mobile robots has seen incredible growth and continues to provide more and more value to robot users. Not only are today’s AMRs able to manage inventory or measure temperatures, but with the help of AI and Machine Learning, they are also becoming smarter. They are now often able to provide real-time data and analytics. This is invaluable in today’s ever-changing business environment. Businesses can now respond quickly to change, and optimise their productivity and efficiency.
What Does This Mean for the Robotics Industry?
Evidently, advances in robotics technology are highly impacting the operations of warehouses, factories, and logistic centers. With so many new technologies popping up in the industry, the need for interoperability increases yet again. In fact, new technologies now need to be able to seamlessly connect with any device or system — also referred to as universal connectivity. A great example of such a technology is the Robot Operating Software (ROS), which has enabled mobile robots to be developed more quickly.
A Need for a Universal Solution
What is needed in the robotics industry is a universal solution that can tackle the interoperability issue. Sure, the need for interoperability can be seen as one of the key drivers for the development of the robotics industry. But, if neglected, it may very well stand in the way of this growth.
Some of the main requirements for such a solution include:
- A universal (or: open) system that provides an overview of all the different types and brands of robots
- A common interface for different features such as traffic control and navigation
- An easy-to-use management system for allocating tasks
- Data analytics for optimization purposes
- Leveled control of third-party robots
Luckily, over the last couple of years, we have seen developments of interoperability standards in several countries — for example, the VDA 5050 in Germany and the Version 1.0 of the MassRobotics Interoperability Standard in the US. Whereas the VDA 5050 primarily focuses on AGV standards, the MassRobotics Interoperability Standard currently focuses on the transmission of basic robot-to-robot information.
Without a doubt, these standards will play a huge role in the development of robotics interoperability. But, there still is a need for a common interface that enables users to manage and control their entire fleet, regardless of types or brands of robots. It will be exciting to see how this will unfold in the future.
Meili Robots provides a universal fleet management system (FMS) for mobile robots. Meili FMS enables users to manage their entire fleet from one platform, regardless of model, type, or brand of robot.