Autonomous Mobile Robots are the Future. Is Education Ready?
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First there were conveyors. Then there were automated guided vehicles. Now, autonomous mobile robots are ushering in a new era of material handling. And OTTO Motors is making it easy for educators to adopt and deploy this technology in their programs.

Autonomous mobile robots: made for material handling

Material handling is prime for automation. Why? Because it has all the components that make it not a great job for humans: it’s rote work, monotonous, labor-intensive, and potentially dangerous. It’s really a waste of a human’s time, talent and intellect.  Who wants to spend their days moving boxes, bins and pallets from one operation to the next, or from one end of the shop floor to the other?

And yet today, it’s a job people have because it’s a crucial task to any operation.

Tools and technology have helped automate the process: from pallet jacks and forklifts to conveyors and AGVs, we’re getting better at taking this boring task away from humans. But these technologies have limitations that, so far, have prevented facilities from maximizing efficiency and throughput.

Until now.

Autonomous mobile robots have started to emerge as the next big solution for material handling processes. OTTO Motors, a brand of Clearpath Robotics, is one of the key players in the AMR industry. Their suite of autonomous mobile robots (and the world’s smartest autonomous forklift), combined with industry-leading software, are giving companies every tool they need to automate their material handling.

AMRs combine the benefits of AGVs with the intelligence of humans

To understand how game-changing AMR technology is, we first have to understand the difference between AMRs and AGVs. It’s still a common misunderstanding that these technologies are basically the same (they’re not). AGVs are confined to pre-defined paths via ground cables or color strips and can’t adapt when obstacles get in the way. They are automated, but not autonomous. AMRs, on the other hand, have embedded intelligence that enable them to continuously adapt their route using live mapping capabilities.

Matt Rendall is the Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Clearpath Robotics. In an appearance on The TechEd Podcast, Rendall explained that AMRs are able to accomplish this constant adaptation using the SLAM method: Simultaneous Localization And Mapping. Using SLAM, the robot develops and updates its map while locating itself within that map using sensors, LIDAR, cameras and intelligent software.

Rendall uses a great analogy to explain the differences between AGVs and AMRs (and why we need both): think of any industrial facility or warehouse as a busy city. In order to effectively and cheaply transport people around the city, you need a metro or subway system. But there are limitations to where and how these subway trains travel. So cities also have a taxi system. It’s a bit more expensive, but you can have much more precise and adaptable point-to-point transportation. The same goes for AGVs and AMRs: each has its own use case, and both are necessary in an efficient operation.

For a more detailed look at the differences between these two technologies, read AGV vs AMR: A Comparison of Automated Material Transport.

To sum up the value of AMRs, we’ll quote Matt Rendall: “The AMR takes all the really great benefits of an AGV in terms of predictability, repeatability, affordability, and it marries it with the intelligence, flexibility and adaptability of a human. Combine those together, and you have effective, low-cost, intelligent transportation in your operation.”

How should schools teach AMR technology?

A big question we hear from educators is: what programs should be teaching this technology, and how?

Matt Rendall had some great insight on this on the podcast. As a mechatronics engineering student at the University of Waterloo, he and his classmates wanted to spend more time getting their hands on advanced robotics technology. So they did a lot of tinkering and robot-building in their spare time at university. This led to the founding of Clearpath Robotics.

When asked this question around how education can integrate AMRs into their curriculum, he said:

“If we look at what are the skill sets required to commission a robotic system, go through all the setup, maintain, modify, even develop accessories on top of the platform that we have, there’s a pretty well-rounded skill set that we can we can plug into. So, mechanical, electrical, controls, software: all of those programs. And Mechatronics Engineering is the marriage of all of those disciplines into one. So if there’s a technical program that has all of those disciplines, I would absolutely recommend it.”

And if a school doesn’t have a mechatronics engineering or comprehensive program that includes all these disciplines?

“Machines that come out today are just more intelligent,” Rendall continues. “So if you if you have a mechanical engineering focus, do some of the options in electrical or controls or software, because the machines that you’re going to design down the road later in your career are going to be instrumented with sensing, are going to need the electronics and the programming in order to make that machine smart.”

Education in action: MATC

Instructor Tom Heraly is is one of the first to incorporate OTTO Motors into his program. Tom is an Electronics and Automation Technology instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College. He teaches key technologies like electronics, PLCs, and industrial robotics – but also the integration of these technologies with one another. And for him, that’s the key for students entering the advanced manufacturing workforce.

“We need to have students that can actually manipulate [AMRs] and work on them and do the integration,” he said. “It’s all about the integration of software, mechanical systems, electrical systems, hardware – all of that.”

Heraly has five OTTO 100 AMRs that students will learn how to operate, program, and integrate with the industrial robots in the labs.

First, students will learn basic mission control and mapping technology. The OTTO 100s actually go on missions through the halls of the college. This enables students to put in traffic lanes, simulate a busy manufacturing or warehouse facility, and have them interacting with pedestrians.

Then, students will work on the integration piece, having the AMRs move material between robots and PLC systems within the classrooms.

What’s the job outlook for these students?

“The demand is through the roof,” Heraly said. “I cannot provide enough students to the manufacturers that are requiring this type of automation activity.”

And it’s not just manufacturers and large distribution centers. Someday, we’ll see AMRs in everyday life, like an autonomous shopping cart that’s able to read your grocery list, head to the right aisles, and load itself up with everything you need without human assistance.

Heraly added, “This market’s going to explode once they figure out that that integration technology is there and that we can integrate this into everyday life.”

You can watch Tom Heraly’s full story on YouTube.

Learn how AMRs can impact your program

If you’d like to learn more about the OTTO Motors platform for education, check out this page or fill out the form below. Our team will be in touch shortly!