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AI-equipped robots active in precision welding

Chinese company Minyue Tech offers 'eyes and brains' solution

China's Minyue Tech has developed a 3D laser optical-angle sensor, which equips robots with "eyes and brains." (Photo courtesy of Minyue Tech)

BEIJING -- Robots are replacing humans across industrial sectors, and welding is no exception.

The importance of welding as an industrial field goes without saying. But many work sites are hazardous environments, filled with smoke, dust, arc light and weld spatter that pose health and safety risks.

The number of young people pursuing careers in welding continues to decline due to the long hours of study and experience needed to become proficient. With many manufacturers facing personnel shortages and high costs, industrial robots are finding their way into the welding trade.

At present, there are more than 500,000 industrial robots in use in China, with welding robots accounting for over 35% of the total. Even conservative estimates put the number of welding robots at more than 2 million in the future.

Using these machines in production, however, presents two big drawbacks.

The first is their limited flexibility. In cases where product size is not standardized or errors occur, robots are unable to adjust. That sometimes leads to bad welds that harm product quality or make the product unusable.

The second involves difficulties with programming. Until now, it has been necessary for skilled human welders to have their actions recorded to give the robot a model to copy. The method was inefficient and meant that the quality of the welds performed by the robot depended on the skill of the operator doing the "teaching."

To resolve these problems, Chinese company Minyue Tech has developed SmartEye, a 3D laser optical-angle sensor, which gives robots "eyes and brains." Vision sensors are placed on the robot and used in conjunction with artificial intelligence. That allows the robot's motions to be tracked in real time using visual feedback.

Minyue Tech's technology offers three advantages.

First, SmartEye uses structured light to perform 3D measurements. By combining vision with deep learning, various parts and weld joints can be accurately distinguished, even in a complex welding environment.

Second, the sensors use edge computing. FPGA chips, or field-programmable gate array chips, are the main semiconductors used for control. By optimizing hardware algorithms, power consumption is reduced and sensor processing speed is increased. Compared with similar products sold overseas, SmartEye offers superior sensor precision and response time.

Third, Minyue Tech's products are designed to allow for the development of specific functions for alternative energy, heavy machinery, construction and other fields. This allows corporate customers to deal with problems specific to their industry.

In addition, Minyue Tech has developed offline programming software called RobotSmart, which allows high-speed programming of industrial-use robots.

In discrete manufacturing -- that is, production of distinct items -- the degree of automation in production is low, coordination is difficult and the rate of product reworking is high. Minyue Tech CEO Lu Long says this creates a large potential market for precision welding robots. He says the company's products offer high vision-sensor image resolution and processing speed. In particular, they can prevent robots from losing track of where they are due to reflection when welding on shiny surfaces.

Minyue Tech's manufacturing customers are mostly in shipping, heavy industry, autos and auto parts, and munitions. The company's standardized products are used by numerous robot manufacturers, including the global top four -- ABB of Switzerland, Kuka AG of Germany, Japan's Yaskawa Electric and Fanuc -- as well as China's Siasun Robot & Automation, GSK CNC Equipment and Honyen Automation Equipment (Shanghai).

Minyue Tech was founded in 2016 by graduates of Beijing's Tsinghua University and Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan with more than 10 years of experience in development. The company specializes in applying vision, AI and other technology to traditional manufacturing industries.

The company has more than 20 employees, 60% of whom work in research and development. The company became profitable in 2017. Its average annual sales growth exceeds 100%, and it expects sales of several tens of millions of yuan (several million dollars) in 2019.

At present, amid the "Industry 4.0" and AI+IoT (artificial intelligence + "internet of things") trends, Minyue Tech is making efforts in 3D vision sensor R&D, as well as continuing to focus on applications for the welding industry.

36Kr, a Chinese tech news portal founded in Beijing in 2010, has more than 150 million readers worldwide. Nikkei announced a partnership with 36Kr on May 22, 2019.

For the Japanese version of this story, click here.

For the Chinese version, click here.

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