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The integration of ABB robots into the B&R automation system is enabling entirely new approaches to machine automation. To learn more about the first large scale joint project between B&R and ABB we spoke to Gregor Kumm, Head of Strategy & Portfolio Development, Robotics & Discrete Automation at ABB, and Stefan Schönegger, Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at B&R. Read on to find out how this will impact the future of manufacturing.

Mr. Kumm, the robotics market continues to surge. Why is that?

Gregor Kumm (ABB): It comes down to the key requirements for the factory of the future. As production batches shrink down to the infamous batch size one, the limitations of conventional manufacturing technology make themselves painfully known. Lines lack the flexibility to handle product variation, and changeover is too slow to reach a commercially viable level of productivity. That's where robots can help immensely.

Stefan Schönegger (B&R): That's precisely the reason our customers – primarily those who build machines in series – are increasingly interested in robotics. And it's why we will now be selling ABB robots directly to our customers.

"We want to offer OEMs a one-stop shop for robotics and machine control."

OEMs can already buy robots. Why do they need a new sales channel?

Schönegger: Because the task of integrating and programming the robot can be very resource-intensive, especially for small and midsized OEMs. There are three reasons for that: The first is that many machines depend on extremely fast, precisely timed processes. To additionally coordinate these processes with an external device is a daunting if not impossible challenge. The second reason is that the average PLC programmer is not familiar with the tools and programming languages used to develop robotics applications. And third, dealing with an additional supplier consumes additional time and resources. But now, OEMs have a single source they can turn to for both robotics and machine control.

"Robotics integration is a resource-intensive challenge, especially for a small or midsized machine builder."

So does B&R's new solution replace ABB's classic robotics offering?

Schönegger: Not at all. There are countless applications that are more robot-centric, like automotive welding, and those will remain the domain of our colleagues in ABB's other robotics business units.

So where do you draw the line between classic ABB robotics and what B&R is offering?

Kumm: That's easy. If the whole process centers around the robot – like Stefan's welding example – then you're dealing with a classic robotics application. But if the robot only plays a supporting role – like sorting out defects at full production speed – that's what B&R's machine-centric robotics is all about. The customers are different as well. Machine-centric robotics is aimed at B&R's traditional audience: manufacturing OEMs. Robot-centric solutions, on the other hand, are typically used by systems integrators and end users: typical ABB customers. Together with the team from B&R, ABB is now able to address each group's unique demands without compromise.

What's the development process like for one of these new solutions?

Schönegger: The process begins with the customer and their needs. We got together and took a good look at what those needs are and what opportunities we have to best meet them.

Kumm: B&R typically serves OEMs, and providing their customers direct, comprehensive consultation and support is what they do best. It was clear to us that B&R would be the sales channel of choice when these customers are looking for robotics as well. They should be able to get their robotics and machine control from a single source.

What obstacles did you encounter along the way?

Schönegger: In addition to the technical considerations of how to best integrate the robots into our automation environment, the more important questions were things like: How do we organize the supply chain? What kind of service packages should we offer? We went to great lengths to ensure we do these things in a way that gives our customers the greatest possible benefit. I'm confident that together we'll be able to that very well.

Kumm: That's right, the technical side was pretty straightforward. In the end it was all about optimizing communication between B&R servo drives and the motors in our robots. That's what B&R and ABB engineering teams have been working on. With that nearing completion, we're now entering an intensive testing phase.

When will OEMs be able to buy the new solution from B&R?

Schönegger: The testing will take some time. Each robot that we offer will first undergo six months of fatigue testing. That's important, because it's how we can guarantee our customers that their robots, controllers and drive system will all work together flawlessly. We're just starting pilot operation, and the first round of robots will be available in series by the end of the year.

Thank you for the interview!

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