Industrial Research Chair in Collaborative Robotics

Developing collaborative robots to mitigate the labour shortage affecting SMEs.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019
equipe porte-parole cobots
Joël Lessard (APN), Vincent Duchaine (ETS) and Nicolas Lauzier (Robotiq).

The labour shortage is adversely affecting many SMEs, and especially those located outside of metropolitan regions. What if one solution to this problem lies in developing collaborative robots that are simple to program, easy to deploy and capable of accomplishing the majority of repetitive tasks required by SMEs? That is the question facing Vincent Duchaine, a Systems Engineering Professor and holder of the new Industrial Research Chair in Collaborative Robotics, which was launched on September at École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS). 

The Chair is the result of a partnership with Robotiq, which Robotics Business Review ranks among the 50 most influential companies in the world 50 in its sector. 

According to Nicolas Lauzier, Director of Engineering at Robotiq: “We understand that SMEs face very specific realities and needs when it comes to robotics. In order to better meet these needs, we have chosen to pursue innovation by awarding this research mandate to Professor Vincent Duchaine, an expert in the field of collaborative robotics”. 

Professor Duchaine explains: “The robots that have hit the market over the last decade are equipped with technical characteristics that reflect the needs of SMEs – they are simple to program, they work in synergy with humans and they are safe to be around. However, there are still some technical challenges that must be resolved in order for them to make huge inroads into our SMEs”. 

For example, robots are not easily able to apply a controlled force when assembling, inserting or polishing parts. In addition, their gripping ability must be improved in order to more closely approximate that of a human being. Toward this end, Vincent Duchaine’s team will explore the avenue of tactile intelligence rather than artificial vision, which is much more prevalent in research circles. 

In addition, although robots are capable of learning to execute the simple and repetitive tasks that they must accomplish on their own, they have difficulty with more complex tasks that must be executed in confined spaces. In order to allow robots to execute these types of tasks in an optimal manner, the team plans to design machine learning algorithms aimed at simplifying programming through the use of direct demonstration.

Finally, in order for robots to eventually be capable of executing progressively difficult and specialized tasks, the team plans to not only broaden the knowledge base related to sensors and actuators, but also to develop improved control algorithms. 

Training specialized personnel 

According to a study conducted by Deloitte, 70% of corporate managers believe that they require a combination of talents and skillsets to be in a position to optimize their processes. 

The new Chair also addresses these needs for Canadian managers. As Charles Despins, Director of Faculty Affairs, Research and Partnerships at ÉTS, points out: “More than 30 graduate and post-graduate students from ÉTS will be collaborating on the Chair’s research work. These individuals will then be able to transmit their knowledge to future employers”. 

By resolving the well-known problems with collaborative robotics in an industrial context, the 
Chair will contribute to increasing the competitiveness of Canadian companies that are trying to stand apart in a market that is becoming increasingly global. 

Professor Duchaine, who is among the most-widely cited experts in this area of specialization, plans to continue to explore the roads less travelled by the scientific community. His research work will contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the field of collaborative robotics, especially in the areas of sensors, tactile intelligence and direct teaching.

A look at the number 

Labour shortage in Québec 

  • According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), 81% of SMEs confirm that they have difficulty recruiting employees; 
  • There are 116,000 vacant jobs in Québec; 
  • Only 25% of Québec companies have automated their processes, compared to 55% of American companies and 75% of German companies. 

Collaborative robots 

  • The average acquisition cost for the simplest collaborative robot cell is $60,000. The investment required for a conventional robot cell is three times that amount. The difference can be attributed to the additional protections required for conventional robots, and especially the complexity of integrating them into the operations of SMEs, primarily with respect to customized design and programming. 

Automation at APN 

  • Since deploying collaborative robots, APN is able to operate its machines for 15% longer. In addition, operators no longer have to clean parts, because this task, which operators find distasteful, is now carried out by the robots; 
  • It took 2 to 3 years for APN to generate a return on its investment for the 10 robots that it installed; 
  • APN’s revenue has increased by 40% per year for the past two years (attributable to a number of factors, including robots); 
  • Since deploying collaborative robots, APN has created new jobs at a rate of 10% per year. According to APN, these jobs are of higher quality;
  • According to APN, as the company’s performance improves, it is able to offer more competitive prices and win more contracts. It has had to hire more employees to meet this demand. In addition, the contracts that it is winning are often those that would have been awarded to emerging countries. Therefore, automation helps to limit the need for offshoring.
     

Information: 

Communications Service, ÉTS 
Chantal Crevier 
514 396-8800, ext. 7893

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