Smart Robotics is known as the ‘employment agency for robots’. Our aim is to develop a wide array of flexible robot applications that can be quickly installed at a customer site and can be operated by anyone. To be able to achieve this flexibility and ease-of-use, we re-use our technology as much as possible in the various applications we develop. But how do we realize this re-use of technology? How does it help us in creating flexible automation solutions? This blog discusses how platform thinking can result in an innovation boost.
Traditional automation means less innovation
Many companies developing robots focus on the robot itself rather than developing specific end-user applications for a customer. These robots are often used and implemented by traditional system integrators. They use and integrate existing technologies to solve a specific customer’s problem. Hence, they work project-based rather than developing standardized applications that can be re-used. However, using only existing technologies results in less innovation. No new innovative technologies are developed in the process.
Platform thinking boosts development
At Smart Robotics, we try to re-use our technology in a wide array of applications to boost development and innovation. This is graphically displayed in the figure below.
Our core software platform is the heart of all Smart Robotics applications. This platform contains various libraries that are shared among different robot applications. Examples are libraries for application development, motion planning, world modeling, robot drivers, simulation, user interfacing, calibration, configuration management and data logging.
All our applications are built around this core platform. Using a core platform enhances developments from both a market pull as well as a technology push perspective:
Whenever a new feature in an application is desired, the required technology may already be available in the core platform. This can be beneficial for the customer, since development times are reduced.
Moreover, re-using the same technology in different applications means the technology will be put to the test more intensively and in more diverse situations, enabling continuous improvement of this technology. For example, when our brick-placing robots required 6D collision checking, the technology was already available in our core software platform. The 6D collision checking technology had previously been developed for the Smart Palletizer.
On the other hand, developing new technology for a specific application might inspire the developers to think about whether this technology can be implemented in other applications. For example, Smart Robotics developed an Application Decision Engine for a Trolley Loader. Afterwards, this approach for programming applications has been adopted in most of our robots. This example shows that developing a new technology can result in a technology push.
How to promote platform thinking
At Smart Robotics we try to promote this ‘platform thinking’ as much as possible. This is reflected in the way that our development teams are structured. Our robots are developed by dedicated teams that focus on a specific topic. These application development teams are complemented by the core development team who:
- Generalize new technologies developed by the application development teams to make them applicable to other applications.
- Develop new technologies from scratch that are ‘pushed’ to the application development teams.
The fact that the application development teams are not mere users but also contribute to the development of the core platform shows a strong similarity to open-source software development. Open-source software development offers the potential for more flexible technology and quick innovation. It also increases adoption of new technologies, which is in line with the goal of Smart Robotics.
To facilitate the adoption of new technologies in applications and to improve knowledge transfer between developers, it is promoted that employees switch team every once in a while. For example, when you move from a core development team to an application development team, your knowledge from recently developed core technologies can perhaps be implemented in an application. Working on applications, on the other hand, might spark ideas about new technologies that can be thoroughly developed in a dedicated core team.
Besides the structure of our development teams, this ‘platform thinking’ is also promoted by continuously updating our robot application roadmap if new opportunities arise due to newly developed technologies. This way, we make sure new technologies are implemented in the best way possible.
A core platform pays off
The Smart Robotics core platform has been growing steadily over the past four years. Developing the Smart Palletizer, Smart Item Picker, as well as a number of customer specific applications has resulted in numerous technologies within the core platform that can be shared and developed further. In the upcoming years, we will continue these developments and apply them in a number of new future applications, such as an Assortment Packer, Case Packer, Parcel Picker and Mobile Item Picker. It is in the development of these new applications that our efforts in creating a generic core platform should really pay off.