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Kawasaki Heavy, ABB seek to unleash robot-human collaboration

Simplified operation key to creating new demand for 'cobots'

Kawasaki Heavy and ABB, which announced a partnership Monday, both supply dual-armed collaborative robots for use in assembly and other tasks.

TOKYO -- Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Swiss group ABB are joining forces to fix something other makers of industrial robots seem to think isn't broken -- the lack of a standard, easy-to-understand way of operating them.

Collaborative robots, which work alongside human employees instead of completely replacing them, are gaining reach as a solution to challenges like labor shortages or changing demands on production. But the automation industry still needs something akin to the technological leap that took computing from room-sized mainframes to home desktops.

Kawasaki Heavy and ABB announced Monday that they will cooperate on developing "cobots." The partners hope to unearth greater demand for automation at smaller businesses by standardizing operating procedures in the otherwise fiercely independent robotics industry.

ABB controls over 40% of the global industrial robot market and is a leader in dual-arm collaborative robot development along with Kawasaki Heavy.

Child's play

The goal is to make robots easy for anyone to use, like a smartphone, said Per Vegard Nerseth, managing director of ABB's robotics business, at a press conference here Monday.

Growth prospects for collaborative robots are bright. The global market for such robots is expected to grow to around $2.4 billion in 2025, nearly nine times as large as in 2016, according to Tokyo-based research group Fuji Keizai. Advanced countries as well as China, the world's largest robotics market, are seen introducing robots in response to soaring labor costs and greater demand for high-mix, low-volume production.

But due to operational hurdles, the majority of robotics makers' customers consists of automakers and other large companies. Industrial robots are typically customized to the tasks they perform. Basic specifications like operating procedures and screen design also differ, depending on the maker, and it typically takes a skilled engineer to work the machines. Yet there has been little effort to standardize methods of operation, and few makers are concerned about the jumble of proprietary formats that customers now face.

ABB and Kawasaki Heavy are taking the initiative on collaborative robots, which cost around $30,000 on the cheap end. This should make them accessible even to small and midsize customers, but the market has shown little growth in that direction. The two companies will cooperate on expanding this potential. On the technical front, this will involve standardizing user interface screens.

Kawasaki Heavy and ABB will also work together to discuss safety standards with regulators. "If other makers agree with our approach, we would like them to join us and think about how to expand the market," said Yasuhiko Hashimoto, general manager of Kawasaki Heavy's robot division.

Microsoft's Windows operating system and other innovations helped computers become accessible to anyone by giving users a simple, standardized interface. The partnership between Kawasaki Heavy and ABB could mark a starting point toward bringing robots to the masses.

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