Breaking news from Boston for the robotics world this morning!
The independent non-profit MassRobotics has just published the world’s first open source autonomous mobile robot interoperability standards, which will allow AMRs from multiple vendors to integrate and work together. The initiative will support safe and efficient operations in global factories, warehouses, and distribution and fulfillment centers.
MassRobotics strives to educate organizations on robotics implementation, and to bring robotics initiatives, investments, and companies to life. IndustrialSage has actually interviewed many individuals associated with their working group–– from their Executive Director Tom Ryden and their co-founder and president Daniel Theobald, who also founded and serves as CEO of Vecna Robotics, to member Jason Walker of Waypoint Robotics.
HOW HAS INTEROPERABILITY POSED A CHALLENGE IN THE INDUSTRY UP UNTIL NOW?
When we spoke to Daniel back in November of 2020, he explained that many end-users currently struggle with the adoption of automated solutions for a myriad of reasons… many of which all center back around interoperability.
“It used to be that you could design a warehouse or a factory and expect it to operate essentially as designed for about a decade. That world is long gone now. And many of our customers have trouble predicting what’s going to be happening six months from now, much less five or ten years from now.”
Adopting a single solution can prove difficult if an end user is uncertain about making a long-term commitment to one brand–– especially if their research has determined that one company’s AMR might be right for one specialized need they have, but a separate company’s AGV might work better for another need in the same facility.
Or, if the end-user were to adopt an entire system and then decide later that they would like to even merely test something new, they may be inhibited by the need to install a completely new specialized system that’s different from the original that they previously purchased.
“This has caused a real tectonic shift in terms of the type of automation people are looking for. They don’t want big, built-in solutions that lock them into a particular process or throughput forever. They want to adopt solutions that can evolve and change rapidly with them as their business needs evolve and change.”
Interoperability between robotics vendor could be a major game-changer because currently, if a single brand of AMRs and AGVs only interact with one another and not with any other brand of robots, important information might be divided between systems if a facility does actually happen to employ more than one robotics solution on their floors. AMRs from differing brands have never had a standard way to share their data or coordinate their activities with one another.
Not until now.
HOW DID THESE INTEROPERABILITY STANDARDS COME ABOUT?
In 2020, the MassRobotics AMR Interoperability Working Group formed with a goal to help their end-users and customers resolve these existing issues.
Cooperation between perceived competitors may sound strange in the business world, but there’s a shared reason most of these companies got started in the first place. Not to make money… but rather, to make warehouse automation easier for people. To that end, they hope and plan for these new interoperability standards–– most definitely a customer-centric creation–– to do just that.
According to Daniel, support for the effort has been pretty widespread. “We are indebted to numerous companies and individuals for donating so much time and expertise to the development of this standard,” he added. “This important technology lays the groundwork for future innovation and concrete value for customers worldwide.”
End-users from major shipping and distribution centers have already agreed that these standards are much-needed. Many have even contributed to helping build out the requirements.
The first use case of the interoperability standards will be trialed at a FedEx facility in Memphis, where AMRs from multiple brands including Vecna Robotics and Waypoint Robotics will all operate in the same production area.
Aaron Prather, Senior Advisor, FedEx, has praised the MassRobotics group for this major milestone in the automation industry. “The diversity of the team shows that the industry can work together in finding solutions around this issue,” he explained. “Our interoperability validation in Memphis later this year will be a great real-world application of Version 1.0’s capabilities and will help to provide feedback to the Working Group to potentially demonstrate what future steps may need to be taken to make further improvements.”
WHAT DOES AMR INTEROPERABILITY MEAN FOR THE ROBOTICS INDUSTRY?
A standard like this, Daniel explained back in 2020, could do for robotics what plug-and-play standards also did for the computer and mobile phone industry after the 2000s.
“The robotics industry is really where the computer industry was several decades ago, where the mobile industry was a couple of decades ago. There’s a lot of fragmentation, a lot of different people out there trying to build robotics solutions, but the standards and the interoperability aren’t quite there yet to support easy adoption, plug-and-play adoption of this. And so those are some of the things that we’re really focusing on.”
More recently, Daniel has described the release of version 1.0 of the MassRobotics Interoperability Standard as, “a crucial milestone for the industry.” He went on to add, “It’s this pre-competitive collaboration and combined thinking from the greatest minds in the field that drive the sector forward exponentially faster than any one vendor could otherwise.”
Tom has described the functionality of these practical standards as, “a critical next step for robotic automation.” MassRobotics has put significant effort into developing and testing these integrations, “which are needed now, and we fully expect [they] will evolve as the robotics industry and end-user companies implement them.”
WHY PARTICIPATE IN THIS PROGRAM?
According to Logistic IQ, AMR adoption is growing at an incredible rate, with a CAGR of roughly 45% between 2020 and 2026. The global AMR and AGV market is expected to reach $14B in the next five years, with more than 270 vendors currently leading the logistics and manufacturing space.
These newly-issued AMR interoperability standards will simplify the adoption of autonomous mobile robots into the market; allowing end-users to swap out different brands of AMRs more easily based on their own needs.
Robots of different types will now be able to share status information and operational conventions, or “rules of the road,” which will help them work together more cohesively on a warehouse or factory floor.
Additionally, the standard also allows managers to create operational dashboards where they can monitor their fleet and see the data from all of their different brand AMRs in one place, so they can more easily gain insights into robotics productivity and resource utilization.
Buyers in the market for AMRs are encouraged to begin looking for the MassRobotics Interoperability Standard compliance badge when making future purchases.
Current vendors that have contributed to and adopted the newly introduced standards include Vecna Robotics, 6 River Systems, Waypoint Robotics, Locus Robotics, Seegrid, MiR, Autoguide Mobile Robots, Third Wave Automation, and the Open-Source Robotics Foundation and others.
Their new AMR interoperability standards are available to the general public on GitHub now at: https://github.com/MassRobotics-AMR/AMR_Interop_Standard
MassRobotics is the result of the collective work of a global group of engineers, rocket scientists and entrepreneurs with a shared vision to create a strong, vibrant robotics and IoT ecosystem. MassRobotics’ mission is to help create and scale the next generation of successful robotics and connected devices companies by providing entrepreneurs and innovative robotics/automation startups with the workspace and resources they need to develop, prototype, test and commercialize their products and solutions. See massrobotics.org for details.