The world is increasingly connected. Nearly 60% of the entire world population and more than 90% of the developed world is online. It’s hard to imagine life without the Internet — no smartphone, no online banking, no streaming music or podcasts, no social media, no email. Connecting humans on the Internet has dramatically expanded our individual reach, our capacity to sell globally, and our ability to help others wherever they are.
Consumer product makers are now connecting devices in your home and everyday life. From TVs to watches, to scales and even cars, an ever-increasing number of products are online and for good reason. Many of these devices can deliver richer, personalized content; tracking of personal data (e.g., weight, blood pressure, heart rate); and self-update when new features or fixes become available.
Manufacturers are beginning to realize the same benefits by cloud-connecting their equipment and processes on the shop floor. Some of these benefits include real-time analytics, predictive maintenance, online support and diagnostics, cloud backups, and more. Robots are getting a lot of attention these days and cloud-connecting them is a hot topic that deserves more discussion.
Why Cloud-Connect Your Robots?
There are numerous benefits to connecting your robots to the cloud and they can be generalized into three primary categories.
Analytics. There are two questions analytics are used to answer: “What happened?” and “What is going to happen?” “What happened?” is answered by collecting machine data from your robot so that you can understand historical production data, cycle time variations, sources/causes of downtime, and more. There are a number of solutions for collecting and visualizing machine data. Some of these solutions collect generic and basic information, similar to a stack light — red, yellow, green to signify machine status — in order to aggregate data about your factory.
Other solutions focus on deeper integration with a particular piece of equipment, like a robot. Robots, in particular, are sophisticated machines and have significantly more information available for advanced analysis. These software solutions can be particularly useful in tuning a robotic application for more throughput or to pinpoint hard-to-find programming issues.
“What is going to happen?” is answered by sophisticated software that leverages machine learning to gain a deeper understanding of a particular application and alert experts when there are trends that deviate from normal operation or anomalies are detected. Most of these solutions take advantage of cloud computing to build predictive models, which can also run in the cloud or sometimes on an edge device.
Backups. Programming a robot in a production environment can take time to get right. And over time, changes are often made to a robot program to accommodate new part numbers or changes in the environment. While you can typically take manual backups of your work to protect your investment, many businesses increasingly want to make sure their work is backed up to the cloud.
Backing up a robot to the cloud provides both tremendous peace of mind and new capabilities. Cloud backups are often real-time and don’t require remembering to plug in the USB stick or trying to remember which version is saved where. Furthermore, if your cloud backups also track versions, you no longer have to remember to “version the file name” to track your changes; for example, file names like Sprocket_v1.2.program or Sprocket_v1.2a.program.
Other critical files are often backed up, too, such as log files and other diagnostic and calibration files on the robot. These files, while not needed day-to-day, are vital when trying to troubleshoot issues or in the unfortunate event of having to replace or rebuild a failed robot controller. Having these files safely in the cloud allows access when you need it most. And some backup solutions offer the ability to easily share these files with your robot distributor, robot integrator, or robot manufacturer.
Support. Inevitably, when you have a sophisticated piece of equipment, you are going to either need to access support or you will be providing support to others at your company. A cloud-connected robot is easier to support. If you are struggling with an application or running into issues, you can share your analytics, logs, I/O status, and more with experts within your company or with your distributor, integrator, or the manufacturer directly. Without a connected robot, these activities often require an onsite visit, which delays resolution and is costly for all parties.
Some manufacturers have sophisticated analysis tools that can be used to diagnose hard-to-find issues; for example, Universal Robots has a software tool to analyze detailed, low-level robot data that can predict issues before they happen. But these tools need to ingest data and files from the robot. A connected Universal Robot, for example, can have the data and files in the cloud for faster analysis and resolution.
Can I Connect My Robot?
Virtually all new robots have an Ethernet port on their controller but that doesn’t make them all created equal. On one end of the spectrum, there are robotics companies that require their customers to purchase addons or modules to take advantage of your data on your robot. Others only offer proprietary protocols and/or services that lead to vendor lock-in and a limited ecosystem of solutions for the market.
On the other end of the spectrum are companies that have an open, well-documented set of interfaces that encourages an active ecosystem of developers building solutions for the market. This includes offerings to collect analytics, remotely access your robots, and get support when you need it.
It’s best to check with the supplier of your robotics equipment to understand the capabilities of your equipment. Better yet, as you’re evaluating your next purchase, be sure to ask about the capabilities to cloud-connect your new purchase. A sure way to understand if you’re buying into an open platform is to ask for a link to their developer forums to see if there is an active ecosystem for that platform.
Common Challenges to Cloud-Connecting Robots
The benefits of cloud-connecting robots are clear. But what holds companies back? It typically falls into one of two categories: cost/complexity or security fears.
Many solutions for cloud-connecting robots require expensive and sometimes complicated hardware. Sometimes they require special network configuration and complex setup processes. Many also charge for a hardware client as well as a monthly subscription fee that can be hard to justify. There are solutions that avoid both the cost and complexity. One example is Hirebotics’ cloud software, which was designed for Universal Robots and runs natively on the robot’s controller. No external hardware is required. And the robot is registered by scanning a QR code on the robot’s teach pendant using a mobile app. Further, the Hirebotics platform offers cloud capabilities at zero cost.
Security is important to all of us, which makes it one of the biggest concerns when cloud-connecting any device. It is always recommended to leverage a firewall on your network, allowing only trusted traffic. As an example, the Hirebotics’ cloud software is designed to protect your data so you can gain the advantages of the cloud without the risk. This means leveraging certificates to securely connect with TLS mutual authentication, ensuring that your data is protected in-transit. Once in the cloud, customer data is isolated and encrypted-at-rest for an extra layer of protection while still allowing you to access it securely from anywhere.
The benefits of cloud-connecting robots are clear and the companies that exploit these capabilities will have a competitive advantage over companies that don’t. Robot suppliers with open platforms cultivate a robust developer ecosystem. These types of open platforms get extended through the cloud far beyond what can be done with an isolated, offline system. It’s time to reimagine robotics in a connected world.
This article was written by Rob Goldiez, CEO and Co-Founder of Hirebotics, Nashville, TN. For more information, visit here .