Automate 2023 Returns as Catalyst for Change from Fixed to Flexible Automation

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By Ryan Martin | 2Q 2023 | IN-6964

Automate is the largest robotics and automation trade show in North America. This year’s edition was based in Detroit, Michigan, for the second time as a standalone event separate from ProMat due to its growth in size. Feature solutions include robotics, vision, motion control, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) with more than 1,200 exhibitors and 25,000 attendees spread across 250,000 square feet of exhibit space.

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Automate's 25,000 Attendees, 1,200 Exhibitors, and 250,000 Square Feet of Exhibit Space


Automate returned to Detroit’s Huntington Place Convention Center May 22 to 25 for the second time as a standalone event, having previously been colocated with ProMat in Chicago. This year’s event was larger than the last in terms of attendance, number of exhibitors, and floorspace, and the separation from ProMat allowed a more focused conversation on manufacturing production versus warehousing and logistics. Key technologies and solutions on display included location precision systems, no-code robotic programming, digital twins, and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Overall, the event showed that the automation equation is shifting from fixed, high-throughput production to flexible production that makes better use of space and resources. One sales rep commented that a good day is sometimes tough because it can mean automating tasks that result in workforce training or reallocation, but dually noted that many manufacturers are having trouble consistently staffing every shift, so automation, when easy to implement, is helping minimize operational risk.

From Fixed to Flexible Automation


A few companies and developments worth highlighting as listed below:

AI: AI was seen in robots and quality inspection as expected. The newer and growing area for innovation is vision-based worker optimization solutions. The focus as evidenced at the show is their integration with other systems for production improvement and automation. The same is true for general vision systems, including Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR). One example is TriStar AI, a venture-backed startup out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with an AI motion tracking solution designed to ensure that workers are performing the right activity and to optimize those activities. PTC and Mercedes-Benz showed a similar demo from a technology standpoint at LiveWorx the week prior. Tristar AI says that although the solution can be used for safety implementations, it finds customers are more willing to pay for production first.

Robotic Programing: ABB showed how ABB RobotStudio can be used with Virtual Reality (VR) for more immersive modeling and development, and expressed a strong commitment to developing solutions that match digital models with real-world implementations (i.e., digital twins). Metaverse was not as prominent a topic compared to Hannover Messe in April. Instead, the focus was more on practical applications, such as no-code programming using VR-style controllers that mimic movement, which Yaskawa had on display. A 2022 survey of 1,610 companies carried out by ABB Robotics found that 70% of U.S. businesses are planning to re- or near-shore their operations, with 62% indicating they would invest in robotic automation in the next 3 years. These companies and individuals need a clear, clean, and scalable path to market.

Automation: The main objective for modern automation is to enable both flexibility and scale with zero errors. Manufacturers from Foxconn to Ford produce many different products on each production line and are well known for using robotics, vision systems, simulation, and the cloud. Tier Two and Tier Three suppliers, as well as Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) with variable piecework are less inclined for reasons that include payback period, production variability (i.e., high mix, low run), and lack of resources available to finance and support such implementations. Vendors at Automate across the board emphasized ease of implementation and use in an attempt to dispel common perceptions of automation being applicable only to the largest few. Meanwhile, at the micro level, within machine automation, the conversation is shifting from pneumatic to electrical systems. Certain industries, including semiconductor and plant fertilizer manufacturing, will continue to use pneumatic systems due to issues with static electricity and explosivity, respectively, when using electric systems. Otherwise, the general trend is toward electric machine automation due to the better overall cost profile.

What It Takes to Scale


The shift to renewable energy paradigms and rapid cycle of new product introductions in consumer goods, electronics, and vehicles is driving new tooling and solutions. Bleeding edge simulation, VR, and AI will take time to test, validate, and train employees on how to use, but Automate showed that the ecosystem is in full bloom in terms of interest and activity. The magic question that all vendors must answer is what it takes to scale.

There were plenty of robots from traditional suppliers ABB, FANUC, KUKA, OTTO, and Teradyne (Universal Robots, Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR)). There were also a handful of startups and new positioning as a result of recent investments, such as Zebra Robotics Automation, which consists of the former Fetch Robotics Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) organization it acquired in 2021, in addition to other capabilities within Zebra, including those supplied by Matrox Imaging (see the recent ABI insight, “Zebra Advances Machine Vision Posture with Matrox Imaging Acquisition”). Additive manufacturing company Stratasys (which recently announced it will acquire Desktop Metal) was also in attendance in the Calvary Robotics booth, showing an automated additive manufacturing work cell concept. The fine line that all of these companies must help customers transition is between the art of the possible and the art of the practical. The best way to do this is to start small and scale fast.