Robotics and the Future of Automation

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We spoke with Keith Kersten from Omron's Automation division, discussing the different robots that Omron has as well as the internship and training programs they have for aspiring roboticists and electrical engineers. There were ridiculously fast and meticulous robots that you wouldn't want to be around and slower, easy-to-program robots that are designed to be in the same area as humans (and other easily damaged things).

Automation in all of its forms, including robots, incorporates a vast array of different talents to bring everything together in a usable package. It was fascinating to see the electronics, the control software, the vision software, and the kinematics of these robots.

Keith: So we're excited to show this. This is our brand new — we call it our TM Series Collaborative Robot. The collaborative robot is actually designed to work side by side with people. Hence the word collaborative. I like to say it’s almost like a super power tool or another set of hands. So you'll notice that it's very deliberate in how it moves – we like to make sure that we're pretty cautious on how fast it's going. So it will actually move faster, but it won't move as fast as some of the ones that you see that are inside the cage.

We make a lot of different robots that get applied to a lot of different types of applications. So if you want something that’s super fast, you might choose one of the other [robots]. If you want something that's easy to move around and use, can handle a lot of different tasks, and can help someone that's actually working on assembly, then this might be your your best bet.

Josh: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Keith: Yeah, I'm Keith Kersten, like you said, I work for Omron as the Marketing Communications Manager. So I work in Marketing and I’m an electrical engineer by training. But I work on how we promote and how we do things like the show here itself. How do we take all these technologies and put them together in a cool way to show people as well as finding and educating customers.

Josh: How does it detect when there's somebody affecting it and how does it not run them over?

Keith: That's actually a very good question. So each one of the joints, if you look at at robot, it's got all these different joints for different axes and there's a servo motor inside there. That motor can actually sense how much force it's exerting. So it will know to move from point A to point B, it'll know about how much force it should have to exert. And if it runs into something else, it's able to calculate and know, “hey, I need to stop because that something else might be a person.” So essentially, it's the intelligence in the motors and the joints and the software behind it that is able to analyze all of those different joints working together to know if it's exerting too much force or too much speed for that matter.

Josh: So this seems like a really big fusion between not only electronics and robotics, but it seems very software heavy. Do you guys have a lot of software people as well?

Keith: Oh yeah, there are a lot of calculations that go into motion control. So if we look at that, there's a whole lot of software around developing the algorithms, developing the control around the robot, and developing the software that other people use to program the robot. There's a lot of software work. And then if you look at those application engineers I mentioned earlier, they have the ability to make all these different things work together. It’s all different types of software that allows you to be able to make it work together.

So we have a suite of software, or basically an integrated development environment that is able to do almost all of these things in one software, but it's different than the software you might use to design a robot itself. But a lot of it's actually getting a bit easier because of the algorithms. If you're going to develop the algorithm that says how the actual motors should move to make it do something, that's different. But if you look at — like to program this robot, is simple flowchart programming. Or, you're able to actually teach it yourself.

One of the things that you can do…as you see right now, as I press the button, I'm controlling where it's going. So you're able to actually manipulate it, and it's giving just enough resistance to hold it. And then now, it's not moving. So you press and release this [button], and you can manipulate all the joints, and then you can teach it a point. So if all the servos were locked, it would be like this where you can't move it, or if they were totally disengaged, then it would do nothing. So it's actually helping you as you're doing this. So you can see that the big links are moving. Also the smaller ones as well. So there’s even programming and technology that goes into making that work smoothly making it easier for you to move it around. Much like the pick and place robots, there are cameras that are integrated that locate the parts that are on the conveyor, so it's able to do inspection. It's also able to identify which parts and where they are so that the robot can know where to go to pick it up. This [robot] also uses vision guidance to be able to locate and pick things up and do some inspections or read codes. So it's not just the robot itself, but it's the integration with the vision that makes it easy to set up and to make it a lot more flexible in the different things that it can do.

Josh: And if I'm not mistaken that vision sensor is what detected that my hand was there so that it dropped the tin into my hand.

Keith: It was waiting to see your hand and once it saw it, then it dropped it.

Josh: So you have a lot of different types of engineers, how would somebody get into Omron? How would they even start the communication process?

Keith: Yeah, that’s a great question. So there's the normal way as far as when we do our hiring, whether they're coming to our website or when we do recruiting at job fairs, but we actually do a lot with schools and universities as well. So we have an internship program where we will go and recruit and try to get interns that will be put on some really cool special projects over the summer. And then we also have a "new hire engineer program" where we will take new hires out of college and they get to work in a lot of different areas. You know, we talked about application engineering, we talked about sales and marketing and all those different things, they can get a really broad experience and work with a lot of different people in the organization to figure out where they might fit in and what they might want to do.

Josh: So how would people find out about these programs?

Keith: The best way is to go to omron247.com and there you can look at the career section and you can take a look and see what's interesting. We're pretty active on LinkedIn as well.

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