There are several large well established robot manufacturers and an increasing number of new entrants to this rapidly expanding market. Some try to offer the complete range of automation solutions and some specialise in specific areas. One thing is for sure, some are better at some things than others. Knowing this and therefore which company to choose is an important and occasionally costly decision. The robot industry has been traditionally dominated by the big 4 – ABB, Kuka, Yaskawa and Fanuc.
Aubo are a Chinese-American Industrial robot company that specialises in collaborative industrial robots. The Aubo i5 is a good deal more cost effective than other robots in this class and has a fast and intuitive programming interface. A strong competitor for the best value collaborative robot on the market the Aubo robots are well built and reliable. They have a range of built in I/O and functionality that makes programming and installation quick and simple. This ease of use translates into great flexibility within the working environment and so is ideal for smaller businesses with less stable production routines. Payback can be measured in weeks or months rather than years. Complete installs with the i5 typically cost less than a bare robot from other manufacturers! For more information about the Aubo please follow this link
Dobot are a company based in Shenzhen China. Their low cost educational robots were a hit on kickstarter and they have a range of other innovative products such as 3D printers and camera gimbals. Dobot’s first foray into true industrial robotics, the M1, has taken time to develop and mature and is now a reliable, low cost solution that suits many SME businesses looking to automate quickly and affordably. The Dobot M1 is a SCARA robot with 1.5kg payload and 400mm reach. There are a range of modular tool heads and an intuitive control system that makes the Dobot M1 a great entry point for those new to robotics and automation. Tasks can be automated for less than £5,000 opening up whole new industries to robotics. Perfect for handling, marking, pick and place, assembly and many other applications the Dobot M1 is unashamedly aimed at the high end maker market as well as industrial – it even has a 3D printing head. For those looking to start their own cottage industry the Dobot M1 provides the opportunity to scale that previously has been the preserve of big business and multinationals. Let your robot run through the night manufacturing whatever widgets you make. Use it to automate the loading and unloading of machines and equipment so that you can get payback on machine investments without the cost, expense and complexity of hiring and training staff.
Universal Robots is an industrial robot company founded in Odense Denmark in 2005 their approach to robots has been different from day one. Frustrated by the limitations of existing robots they decided to throw out the status quo and start from a different perspective, making a light easy to program robot.
The Universal Robots programming interface was groundbreaking when introduced and quite different from most other robot manufacturers. Using an intuitive display it can be programmed easily even by complete novices. This significantly reduces the costs of installation and makes the robot more quickly adapted to new tasks. In the picture the controller is on the move tab. On the left of the large colour touchscreen are various linear movements that the robot can make. On the right is a real time image of the robot’s position and the positions of each axis, again these can be moved individually. A move can be simulated before it is executed if required. Also the Universal Robot can be moved into positions manually. Although none of these functions is individually groundbreaking the combination with the very easy to understand interface is a significant improvement. As an indication the manual for the Universal Robot is less than a quarter of that for an ABB or Fanuc.
Having seen explosive growth there are now over 3500 Universal Robots installed worldwide and the company has over 150 employees. Revenues for 2014 were $36m – an increase of 70%. in 2015 Universal Robots was acquired by Teradyne Inc NYSE:TER who manufacture and test silicon chips. The latest e series of UR robots have extra torque sensing abilities that allow them to be regarded as collaborative, more or less, straight out of the box.
Asea Brown Boveri is one of the big industrial robot companies. They have a world wide presence and were one of the pioneers of the industrial robot industry. ABB Group is a very large multinational with orders of $41.5 Billion in 2014. The manufacture of Robots is just part of their business but is considered a core business and central to their corporate identity.
Being one of the most popular robot brands in the EU and worldwide there are lots of experienced ABB programmers and service engineers available.
ABB has recently acquired Gomtec Gmbh who have developed lightweight, budget, collaborative robots, this bold move gives ABB a significant second string in the collaborative robot market. Although Gomtec were only just launching on the market they have a very interesting product that will benefit significantly from having ABB’s might behind it. ABB as a company is also very experienced in mergers and acquisitions. They have a long if not exclusively successful history of buying into new sectors.
Estun are a Chinese robot manufacturer. They are very well established in their home market they have a full range of industrial robots including palletisers, scara’s, deltas as well as six axis machines. Their robots are high quality and similar in design and specification to the big four robot manufacturers. Now looking to expand beyond the Chinese market they are strong competition for the existing players.
Fanuc are one of the big 4 robot companies, possibly the biggest in the world presently, and have supplied many automotive manufacturers. Their robots are generally very well made, accurate and long lived. Their programming is quick for experts but not especially easy for novices. Having been at the forefront of CNC machine development in the 1960’s and 70’s they established themselves as a serious robot company in the 1980’s. Fanuc have shown good profitability as a company and have a great track record. Fanuc Robotics has been very much the brainchild of Dr Seuiemon Inaba who had very definite ideas of the sorts of machines they should be making. He has been succeeded by his son Yoshiharu Inaba. Fanuc have been historically thought of as being secretive, closed off and obsessed with the colour yellow! This is gradually changing not least because of increasing foreign investment in the company specifically Third Point. Fanuc are definitely very profitable, ($1.6Bn) and are in pole position for the growth in the robotics market, however Fanuc have a large ($8Bn) cash reserve that Third Point want Fanuc to use rather than sit on.
They have historically made big strategic partnerships such as GMF (General Motors Fanuc) in the North American Market. This has led to some issues such as having different software and programming in different parts of the world as well as different specs on cabling and controllers. There are also local differences in business strategy, with some regions being keen to offer full installation services while other regions are more helpful to third party integrators. Recently Fanuc Japan has taken control of GMF and there seems to be a drive to homogenise their products and company strategy somewhat.
They have recently launched a series of green collaborative robots. These have a foam padding over the arm, to help protect human colleagues and have some features seen in other collaborative machines. One noticeable thing is that while most robots of this type are very small with sub 15kg capacity fanuc has some collabrative robots in the 50kg range. This is similar to their delta robot strategy where they have some unusually large, and very small robots of this type also.
Cloos have been around for many years and are respected for making some very nice robots. Specialising somewhat in the European MIG welding market their robots are well designed and made.
Comau are an Italian industrial robot company that for over 40 years have supplied production line equipment to the automotive industry. Largely centred on the Fiat plants in Italy they have been producing their own industrial robots of most types since the 1980’s. They are now established worldwide but are still focused on their core business of line building for car factories.
Hyundai have developed their own industrial robots not only for their own internal use in car factories but also for the wider market. Hyundai are South Korean and this is one of the biggest, and most rapidly expanding industrial robot using countries in the world. Their robots appear not dissimilar from Kuka or Fanuc.
Kawasaki are a household name for their motorcycles but they also make bridges, ships and industrial robots. Kawasaki licence made Unimate robots in the 1970’s and then developed their own designs in the 1980’s. Again historically their core market has been automotive but are increasingly diversifying into new areas. Their slogan “Simple Friendly” does quite a good job of summing up their robots. They are not technically always the most adventurous but they are dependable and affordable machines.
Kuka (Keller und Knappish, Augsberg) originally supplied gas equipment especially for welding and cutting. This expertise in welding led them to develop the first electrical spot welder. Subsequently they made production line equipment for the likes of the VW beetle. Often using large jigs fitted with several welders to fabricate chassis they became an established automotive line builder.
In the early 1970’s they created Famulus the first six axis electric robot arm. Kuka have been at the forefront of much of industrial robot development since. The S shaped arm design that Kuka originated has now been widely used as it allows a compact, lightweight, arm with a large reach. Kuka were also the first to use a Windows based controller and to use carbon fibre extensively in a mass produced robot arm.
Kuka are publicly listed and have Chinese white good manufacturer Midea as a major shareholder. This partnership may help propel Kuka further into the rapidly growing Chinese market. However with around 50% of Kuka’s business being line building for the likes of Mercedes and Grumman Northrop many will hope that Kuka maintain their very German approach to business.
Mitsubishi make a range of small, lightweight robots. Their Melfa robots have been on the market for many years and are well established as being among the best of their type. Designed for pick and place, assembly and testing applications they are very fast and precise. In many ways a precursor to the collaborative robots now in vogue, Mitsubishi have a dedicated fan base in many industries and so have gradually improved, rather than revolutionised, their product line.
Nachi are a Japanese based bearing company that make robots that are mechanically very capable. Widely used in the automotive industry they have a good range of 6 and indeed 7 axis robot arms. The 7th axis is in the the vertical part of the robot arm giving a great deal of additional, if not always useful, flexibility.
They are generally well thought of with a good programming interface but have not had as much market penetration outside Japan and automotive as some others.
Reis are another of the well established but smaller robot companies and are now majority owned by KUKA AG. Founded over 50 years ago they developed some very high end capabilities in the robot industry including laser integration and a focus in the casting industry.
Rethink Robotics announced they were shutting down in October 2018 having not sold as many robots as anticipated. Founded by Rodney Brooks, one of the creators of the iRobot vacuum robot, Rethink had a different approach to all other robot companies. Rethink’s Baxter dual arm robot has some outstanding features such as a face, to act as a instinctive human-machine-interface, that indicates the robots focus, status and intention. Another feature unique to Rethink is the compliant by design joints. They have built in flex making the robot safer and more adaptable if at the cost of speed and strength. Although Baxter has aroused a great deal of interest it could be described as “ahead of its time” and to this end Baxter’s new stablemate, Sawyer is a simpler single armed robot with a more industry biased remit, going after the relatively safe and easy machine tending sector. A nice touch is that the robot’s names are historical profession names, an acknowledgement that times change and jobs are created and made obsolete over time as technology changes.
Staubli was founded as a small workshop in 1892 and now has a global workforce of over 4,000. Staubli bought the Unimation brand from Westinghouse in 1988 after Unimation had lost market share due to sticking to hydraulic systems in automotive robots. What was useful to Staubli was that Unimation had a smaller arm line – the PUMA. Staubli have evolved into a robot company that is almost uniquely unfocused on automotive applications. Instead Staubli mostly make high speed high precision, but low payload machines for use in other applications.
The Techman TM5 Collaborative robot comes with a built in vision system. Techman robots have been developed by Quanta Storage Inc who are based in Taiwan. With a large focus on R and D the TM5 is their first robot and comes with several nice features. The primary one is that built in vision system. It is their own system and works very well even in relatively challenging conditions. Vision systems typically add thousands onto the price of an installation and often require a lot of setting up. By having the system built in from the start makes it much easier to use and makes using vision to help with misaligned parts etc making installations that bit more reliable. The TM5 has also been developed from the ground up to be collaborative. This makes installing the robot collaboratively simpler. Other good features are the easy to use programming interface which makes easy to navigate programs that look a lot like electrical schematics, a range of plug and play grippers, a mini pendant to act as a basic HMI, on arm training controls and finally genuinely robust build quality.
The TM5 does have some striking similarities to other collaborative robots and is of a similar price, but given the added value of the vision system and other features this robot is already gaining market share.
In 2002 Yaskawa Motoman claimed the title of the biggest robot company in the world and now sell over 1000 robots per month. They sold their first L-10 robot (based on ASEA’s IRB6) in 1977 and focused largely on MIG welding applications. By the late 1980’s their ERC controlled robots were among the best industrial robots in terms of accuracy and reliability, and were very easy to use compared to the competition. Although they do produce larger models Motoman are still highly regarded for their small MIG welding robots and their futuristic dual arm machines. Yaskawa are one of the worlds foremost manufacturers of Servo motors, indeed ABB have used them on many models. Yaskawa’s latest revenues are $3.52 Billion